Listen to this article
Ayanna Howard, the dean of the college of engineering at Ohio State University, has been elected to the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) 2021 class of fellows.
The NAI will be adding 164 academic innovators from universities as well as governmental or nonprofit research institutions to its fellows program this year.
Howard became the first woman to be head of the Ohio State college of engineering in March. This was just the latest of accomplishments for the roboticist, entrepreneur and educator.
For 12 years, Howard worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where she helped to develop SmartNav, an autonomous, next-generation Mars rover. While at NASA JPL she held several roles, including senior robotics researcher and deputy manager in the Office of the Chief Scientist.
Howard’s time at NASA would be just the beginning of her career. After leaving NASA in 2005, she joined Georgia Tech as an associate professor and founder of the HumAnS lab. The lab has generated more than 250 publications, and focuses on humanized intelligence. Researchers at the lab use techniques like sensing and learning to enhance the autonomous capabilities of robots.
During her time at Georgia Tech, Howard ran STEM camps for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Running these camps would give Howard inspiration for creating a toy controller for children who can’t swipe or pinch on a tablet or touchscreen.
The controller, which looks like a stuffed animal but has buttons, makes adaptive use of a tablet possible. It allows children with physical disabilities to interact with STEM education.
In 2013, the controller led Howard to found a spinoff company, Zyrobotics, that now develops mobile therapy and educational products for children with special needs. Howard is the president of the company’s board of directors. Zyrobotics became a nonprofit in 2020.
While at Georgia Tech, Howard was also the program director of the nation’s first multidisciplinary robotics PhD program, the associate chair for faculty development in the school of electrical and computer engineering and the associate director of research at the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.
Howard’s passion for advocacy in robotics didn’t stop with Zyrobotics. In 2020, she co-founded Black in Robotics, an organization that advocates for diversity and inclusion in the robotics industry. Howard is the academic co-lead of the organization.
The NAI fellows program honors academic inventors that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and welfare of society.
Howard’s accolades include being named to Forbes’ America’s Top 50 Women in Tech list in 2018 and being named the Association for Computing Machinery’s Athena Lecturer in recognition of fundamental contributions to developing accessible human-robotic systems.
Last year, Howard and Monroe Kennedy III, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and founding member of Black in Robotics, were recent guests on The Robot Report Podcast. They shared their personal journeys, challenges they overcame throughout their careers, and what can be done to level the playing field for minorities in robotics and engineering fields. You can listen to the podcast below.