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One small step: Meet Steve the robot

Blessed Trinity 13-year-old experiments with robotics to help the disabled walk

Blessed Trinity seventh grader Daniela Rodriguez poses with REC Foundation President Jason Morrella, left, and 
Karthik Kanagasabapathy, manager at Innovation First International, Canada, Inc., after being inducted into the STEM Hall of Fame at the VEX Robotics Competition World Championship in Anaheim, Calif., in April.

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

Blessed Trinity seventh grader Daniela Rodriguez poses with REC Foundation President Jason Morrella, left, and Karthik Kanagasabapathy, manager at Innovation First International, Canada, Inc., after being inducted into the STEM Hall of Fame at the VEX Robotics Competition World Championship in Anaheim, Calif., in April.

MIAMI SPRINGS | What began as a school science fair project could potentially help disabled people become more mobile, thanks to a 13-year-old girl in South Florida. 

Daniela Rodriguez, a seventh grade student at Blessed Trinity School in Miami Springs, created a robot named Steve which captures brain activity and nerve impulses to produce movement. 

"Using this technology, I was motivated by the fact that maybe one day, my research could affect the lives of many who have prosthetics or use wheelchairs, such as wounded veterans or people with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and other diseases that affect the neurological system," she said.

She has always been interested in engineering and robotics, a passion that seems to run in the family; her father, Omar, is an electrical and software engineer whom Daniela sometimes helps with projects.

“Daniela is an incredibly talented and gifted young lady, and it's not just something that happened overnight,” said Maria T. Perez, principal of Blessed Trinity. “Daniela has always achieved success at every level, from spelling bee championships to the National Junior Honor Society.”

Blessed Trinity seventh grader Daniela Rodriguez poses with her award winning science project, a robot named Steve which captures brain activity and nerve impulses to produce movement.

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

Blessed Trinity seventh grader Daniela Rodriguez poses with her award winning science project, a robot named Steve which captures brain activity and nerve impulses to produce movement.

After winning first place in last year's state science fair, she took part in a robotics program at Princeton University during the summer, where she was introduced to the VEX Robotics platform. She was excited to apply her new robotics knowledge to this year's science project, but was initially stymied when she learned that the project criteria required that it be related to the human body. 

She found inspiration one day while walking with her mom Jeannie Rodriguez, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and uses a walker to get around. Why not find a way for people with different disabilities to use their brainwaves and thoughts to help them get around? 

She quickly got to work building and programming Steve the robot using C++ software and the VEX platform. She used 40 subjects in the experimentation phase, and in all 40 subjects it worked.

“I'm able to apply something I learned in school, like anatomy and the neurological system, and robotics is a way to apply the knowledge I learn in school to something I can do right now,” said Daniela. “I don't have to wait for a college diploma, because all these things are used in the science field right now.”

She took her project, “Can Our Brainwaves Move Robotic Equipment?” to this year’s State Science and Engineering Fair, the largest academic competition in the state, and won Best in Fair against more than 900 other finalists. Soon after, the story of what Daniela had accomplished began to spread.

Blessed Trinity seventh grader Daniela Rodriguez received this proclamation from the city of Miami Springs for her award-winning science project, a robot named Steve that she hopes will one day help the disabled to move about more easily.

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

Blessed Trinity seventh grader Daniela Rodriguez received this proclamation from the city of Miami Springs for her award-winning science project, a robot named Steve that she hopes will one day help the disabled to move about more easily.

Jason Morrella, president of the REC (Robotics Education & Competition) Foundation, came across her story and was inspired by how she had taken robotics, found a way to apply it to everyday life, and improve the lives of people.

"What was unique about her story was the way she took the technology and applied it to trying to solve real world problems," said Vicki Grisanti, senior director of Communications and Community Relations at REC Foundation. "She really set out to improve the lives of people with debilitating disease, using robotics technology to accomplish that. That inspired us."

According to their website, the foundation is dedicated to increasing student interest and involvement in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by engaging them in hands-on sustainable and affordable curriculum-based robotics engineering programs around the world. 

Morrella contacted Blessed Trinity and invited Daniela to participate in the VEX Robotics World Championship, sponsored by the REC Foundation, which took place in California this past April. Students from around the country work in teams to showcase their technological skills and complete specified tasks using their robots, but he wanted Daniela to showcase her work alongside other major projects from the field.

“The students in the competition are extremely talented individuals. They come up with great ideas to solve competition problems, but it's not all that often we see students apply it directly to a real-world problem and one they've identified on their own, so that was very unique in her story,” said Grisanti.

"He said to me, 'You don't know what your daughter has done,'” said Jeannie Rodriguez, recalling the conversation she initially had with Morrella when he called to invite the family to the competition. 

He also gave her the news that, because of Daniela’s passion and motivation, the foundation wanted to honor her by inducting her into the STEM Heroes Hall of Fame — the first time a student has been so honored. 

The award recognizes "leaders whose contributions have set the standards for those who have dedicated their work to the STEM fields," according to the foundation’s website.

On April 19, Daniela was inducted alongside Lt. General Thomas P. Bostick, chief of engineers and commanding general for the U.S. Army, and Steve Sanghi, founder and CEO of Microchip Technology. Last year's inductees included Dave Lavery, program executive for Solar System Exploration at NASA who oversees the Mars Exploration Rovers; physicist and Nobel Prize winner Douglas Osheroff; and Miral Kotb, inventor of the dance technology platform iLuminate that was featured on “America's Got Talent.”

In addition, to further support Daniela’s work and promote science and engineering in the school, REC is providing Blessed Trinity with grants in the form of robotics kits so that its students can participate in future competitions. Grisanti said that these kits — two VEX Robotics Competition Classroom Kits for the middle school and two VEX Competition IQ Super Kits for the elementary students — include all the materials they would need to build a robot. All the parts are sustainable and can be used year-over-year.

Perez said she hopes the launching of a robotics program will open up the technological minds of Blessed Trinity’s students.

“It makes me proud that something that she has ventured into is truly going to change the lives of individuals in the future. I truly believe that that's her goal,” said Perez.

Apart from the state and national recognition she has received, Miami Springs Mayor Zavier M. Garcia also proclaimed May 13, 2013 as Daniela Rodriguez Day in honor of her technological and humanitarian contributions.

“With each step, everything gets bigger and I meet so many people,” said Daniela. “It's not only about the awards, but also the fact that I've met so many inspiring and distinguished people, have made new friends and got to learn so much more than I can imagine.”

Rodriguez describes her daughter as passionate and energetic, despite her quiet and shy demeanor. She said Daniela also enjoys other extracurricular activities such as attending school dances and basketball games, deejaying parties and events, and racing go-carts on the weekends.

“What makes me even prouder is that Daniela is a very humble and giving student,” said Perez. “She's a normal seventh grade girl who praises others instead of herself. She's a true joy, a well-rounded student, and I can't say enough about her.”

"My dream job is to be a mechanical or biomedical engineer,” said Daniela. “I really like trying to use technology to solve world problems such as disabilities, to create a solution.”

Comments from readers

Carlota E. Morales, Ed. D. - 06/27/2013 05:43 PM
Congratulations, Daniela. You are an asset to your schools and to allCatholic schools in the Archdiocese of Miami. May the Lord bless your talents.
Carlota E. Morales, Ed. D.
Principal
Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School
Teresa - 06/24/2013 08:47 AM
Congratulations, Daniela. What an amazing accomplishment at such a young age, I have no doubt you will accomplish your goal! God bless you!

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