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State Farm funds student innovation, dreams at Florida International University Discovery Lab


Lazaro Herrera has been obsessed with robots since junior high.

Lazaro Herrera

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba who came to the United States when he was 12, Herrera spent his junior high and high school years learning about robots, building robots, and entering them in competitions. Today, when the sophomore computer science major is not in class, he’s working in the Florida International University School of Computing and Information Sciences Discovery Lab. That’s where he and other students spend hours designing and building robots, under the guidance of Laboratory Director Jong-Hoon Kim, who encourages his students to “Think Big. Start Small.”

“We work long hours, but we are working on exciting projects and collaborating with other students,” Herrera said. “It’s about the journey. It’s about the learning.”

Herrera’s dreams of building ever more complicated robots, will get a boost from a $50,000 donation from State Farm. State Farm will officially present FIU’s School of Computing and Information Sciences with a $50,000 check for its Discovery Lab on Tuesday, April 10, at 2:30 p.m. in Room 243 of the Engineering and Computer Science Building .

The Discovery Lab, created last fall, is aimed at developing products for the marketplace. At the same time, the laboratory provides students with the hands-on experiences they need to solve real-world challenges, develops student-led research opportunities, fosters students’ entrepreneurial skills, and trains a new generation of IT professionals who reflect the diversity of South Florida. The robots Herrera and his fellow students designed will be exhibited at the April 10 event.

“The Discovery Lab provides a platform to develop many new ideas,” said FIU School of Computing and Information Sciences Director Sitharama S. Iyengar. “The lab is comparable in its mission to labs at top universities. We are educating entrepreneurs, sustaining research and, developing products that can be commercialized. We are training the next generation of students with the 21st Century skills they need to succeed.”

From left to right: undergraduate student Uwe Cerron, undergraduate students Leo Shao, Irvin Cardenas, Francisco Peleato, Lazaro Herrera, Michael Lazo, Daniela Chavez Guevara and Fernando De Zayas, School of Computing and Information Science Director S. S. Iyengar, Visiting Assistant Professor Jong-Hoon Kim, Associate Professor Nagarajan Prabakar, Director of Technology Steve Luis and graduate student Sheikh Hossain.

The money from State Farm will help the laboratory acquire key design and development tools it needs to advance its mission. The funds will go toward workstations, servers and software licenses, as well as help fund a design competition for students. The donation is part of FIU’s longstanding partnership with State Farm.  The corporation has supported a variety of initiatives across the university including the State Farm Financial Literacy Lab at FIU’s College of Business Administration, a state-of-the-art trading, research, and teaching laboratory designed to empower students and the community with knowledge of capital market activities. These include equity and debt issuance and investment analysis, financial planning, cash management, derivatives, and investment management.

“Tomorrow’s labor force must be ready to meet the constantly changing demand for technology solutions to business needs,” said State Farm Operations Vice President in Florida Cheryl Herrin. “State Farm is proud to support the FIU Discovery Lab in its innovative approaches to helping students – America’s future employees – prepare to make a difference in the workplace.”

During the check presentation event, the robots demonstrating their abilities will include a trio of helium balloons shaped like fish that will be used to create an “air aquarium” through the use of object and sound detectors. Other robots will include “Gunbot,” which shoots plastic pellets, and a robot designed to pick up tennis balls. The lab also is developing other technologies, including those that can be integrated with smart phones and technology that can enhance security as well as user convenience

“There are no restrictions in this laboratory,” Kim said. “These students are hardworking and motivated. They can achieve great things and have a tremendous impact.”