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2021 HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase Offers Opportunity for Students To Shine

HBCU students participated in the HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase
HBCU students from across America participated in the HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase | David Poole/NCAT

A fully autonomous UV sanitation drone designed to battle airborne pathogens, a robot guide dog to assist visually impaired people, and a chatbot system that assists hospitals, blood donation centers, and blood banks in their quest to enlist blood donors were three of the outstanding inventions from student innovators from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) at a recent showcase.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) HBCU-UP Program, hosted the fourth annual HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase in September 2021 in Washington, D.C. Dozens of student teams pitched innovations they developed in response to one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This also marked the first in-person event AAAS has hosted since the shutdown. “It was great to see the students in person again” noted Allison Gonzalez and Tarrick Clayton, AAAS Program staff.

“Since 2018, AAAS has hosted the HBCU Making and Innovation Showcase that highlights the inventive and entrepreneurial talent at our nation’s HBCUs” Neela White, AAAS Project Director and NSF Co-PI, said. AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh gave the opening plenary keynote where he challenged students to “to bring their authentic selves everywhere they go and to bring science and engineering to the table”. Bibi Hidalgo, Associate Administrator for Government Contracting & Business Development at the Small Business Administration oriented the teams on opportunities to support their entrepreneurial efforts. Chike Aguh, Chief Innovation Officer for the United States department of Labor, gave the closing awards luncheon keynote. An HBCU alum himself of Nigerian heritage, Aguh shared real-world examples of innovations in the federal government and the need to create opportunities that are inclusive.

This year’s first place prize went to a team from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (NCAT) State University who designed the aforementioned drone after thinking about the devastating impact of the pandemic.

“Directly related to COVID-19, we wanted to…create something that was relevant,” David Poole, one of the students on the NCAT team, said. “From there we created the drone, that would be autonomous and that would be used to autonomously sanitize areas, large areas, without the need to wipe or spray surfaces to reduce the spread of pathogens, i.e. COVID-19.”

This year’s second place prize went to the team from Morgan State University, who created a robot guide dog. They wanted to invent a product that would offer many of the same benefits as a guide dog but without some of the drawbacks.

“The idea that we had is to help people [who are] low-income to develop a robot guide dog that kind of resembled the actual guide dog but is way cheaper, and it’s more innovative, it does not have the maintenance costs of a normal dog,” Eazaz Sadeghvaziri, one of team’s innovators, explained.  

Third place went to a team from Philander Smith College. “Our project was called Da Give Bloods. Da Give Bloods is a communication system that helps reduce blood shortages by connecting health workers to potential blood donors,” team member Darren Butler explained. “When deciding which Sustainable Development Goal we wanted to go after, we all talked about our individual experiences and one of the experiences that came up for me is I would see a lot of messages on social media and in group chats with friends and family requesting blood donations for patients at the local hospital.”

Investing In Historically Excluded Students

The Showcase is one of four events that AAAS convened in the fall to support HBCU and low-income STEM students. “The goal of these initiatives is to tap into the full potential of a diverse cadre of students to support and advance equitable STEM education, research, innovation and career opportunities” Dr. Iris R. Wagstaff, AAAS STEM Program Director and NSF PI, noted.

To that end, AAAS and NSF also hosted a Virtual HBCU Innovation Summit and Presidents’ Meeting. The Summit engaged HBCU students, faculty and leadership to address solutions to advancing, scaling and sustaining innovation efforts. Session topics included technology transfer, strategic collaborations, and grant resources. The Presidents’ Meeting featured a listening session with Sudip Parikh where Presidents shared needs and current initiatives regarding advancing innovation and research capacity to inform AAAS of how they can best advocate and partner in support of these efforts. The Presidents’ Meeting engaged Presidents from NCAT, Spelman College, UDC, Morgan State, and Morehouse College.

David Wilson, President of Morgan State University, noted that one of the main obstacles HBCUs face is funding constraints. “We have to garner the federal investments for the most part in order to make that happen because this is not going to happen by wishing it to happen it has to happen with significant federal investments,” he noted.

Concluding the fall events, AAAS and NSF hosted the 2021 Virtual Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) Fall Forum. The NSF S-STEM Program supports highly talented, low-income STEM majors. The AAAS S-STEM Initiative supports NSF S-STEM PIs/Co-PIs by providing a platform to share their work, develop collaborations, and participate in a community of practice. The Fall Forum engaged ~1,000 participants over September 30 and October 1 in 30 workshops and breakout sessions, 128 PI project presentations and three plenary sessions.

Rosalyn Hargraves, Division Director for the Division of Undergraduate Education at NSF, opened the event by describing the successes of the S-STEM Program and the need to ensure that any student regardless of economic background who has the talent to pursue a STEM education is given the opportunity and the support needed to do so.

The audience was thrilled to hear from the Opening Plenary keynote, Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Dr. Hrabowski, a renowned leader in higher education and diversity, equity and inclusion for the last 30 years, spoke on celebrating student success and nurturing academic talent for a global and changing workforce. Additional plenary speakers included Dr. Brandon Ogbunu, Yale University and Dr. Ximena Cid, California State University at Dominguez Hills.