A social media platform for online education, a smart cane that warns visually impaired users of objects along their path, and a mobile app that connects customers to restaurants eager to distribute surplus food were just a few of the inventions that student innovators from historically black colleges and universities displayed at a recent showcase.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, with support from the National Science Foundation, hosted the third annual HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase in February 2020 in Washington, D.C. The event, held in conjunction with AAAS’s and NSF’s Emerging Researchers National Conference, brought together 80 students and faculty members from HBCUs for 2 days of interactive workshops and training on invention and entrepreneurship. The conference culminated with 18 teams of undergraduate and graduate students from 13 colleges and universities pitching their innovations.
“Entrepreneurial thinking and an invention mindset are critical to address the challenges that affect communities around the world, and in our own backyards,” said Neela White, a project director in AAAS’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program. “As we look at the shifting demographics in the country, we must be intentional about ensuring that innovation ecosystems are fully inclusive.”
The showcase was inspired by a similar effort held during the White House’s 2015 National Week of Making, which celebrated the maker movement: individuals and groups harnessing technology and creativity to turn their innovative ideas into reality. Quincy Brown, a AAAS STEM program director at the time, proposed the HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase to the National Science Foundation in 2017 and hosted the first showcase in 2018.
“The showcase is designed to provide an opportunity for students to display the talent and innovation already at HBCUs, show how these students are addressing challenges specific to their communities, heighten the awareness of the individuals and resources that support an inclusive innovation ecosystem, and further develop students’ skills,” White said.
Each of the teams created an innovative solution to a problem in its community related to one of 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which include quality education, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, and “no poverty.” The teams designed and built prototypes to address a pressing challenge in their community. Each participant then filmed a video of their prototype to demonstrate and pitch their solutions to expert judges, who selected the top three projects at the showcase.
The winning team—Nicolette Barriffe, a student at Clark Atlanta University, and Stephen Seymour and Leoul Tilahun, both from Morehouse College—tackled the U.N. goal of climate action with a network of communication devices intended for use in disasters and other emergency situations. The Guardian Network allows individuals to report their status when internet connectivity and cellular services are not available using long-range communication networks. The network also features a dashboard to allow emergency operators and first responders to keep track of those in need and allocate assistance.
The February presentation by Barriffe, Seymour, and Tilahun was not the first time they took part in the showcase. The trio competed in the showcase’s inaugural competition in 2018 as first-year college students, placing second.
“Based on their success, they wanted to do bigger and better projects,” said Ayodeji Oyesanya, who served as the team’s faculty adviser in 2018 and 2020. Oyesanya runs the Morehouse College MakerSpace Exploration Center and advised five teams participating in this year’s showcase.
In the break between showcases, Seymour and Barriffe cofounded MakeWay, a student organization dedicated to designing innovative projects that now counts more than 60 members. “This year, I got the gang back together,” said Seymour. “But now of course, you see the world in a different way. Our perspectives are more matured and developed.”
“The trio returned to the showcase determined to win,” noted Oyesanya, and they achieved their goal.
As an adviser, Oyesanya seeks to encourage students to solve problems on their own. “I find it remarkable how these students can make such wonderful projects and such creative projects and innovative projects with what could be perceived as limited resources,” he said. “Because we are an HBCU, we don’t have the resources and the million-dollar budget of a lot of predominantly white institutions. But these students have learned not to allow that to stagnate them and to still be able to compete with any of these schools in the country.”
Added White, “I was blown away by the talent of all of the students, by the level of knowledge they brought and how much more they were willing to absorb. It was just really great.”
White was also impressed with how strongly students connected with the sustainability themes to inform their projects. “They are driven by social good; they are driven by wanting to do something good for their region, for the global well-being,” she said.
“Our number one goal whenever we work on a project is that it’s culturally relevant,” said Barriffe. When Seymour’s family was affected by Hurricane Dorian, which hit the Bahamas in 2019, the team realized that emergency communications would be an important place to focus their efforts, she said.
In addition to the competition, students and faculty attending the showcase took part in workshops on subjects such as technology transfer, the business of entrepreneurship, and career pathways in the innovation sector.
Another session focused on collaboration and teamwork in innovation.
“It’s really hard to make new things happen when you’re by yourself,” said Diana Yousef, who, along with her business partner Huda Elasaad, spoke during a session titled “The Power of Teams: From Invention to Entrepreneurship.”
Yousef and Elasaad are the chief executive officer and chief technology officer, respectively, of change:WATER Labs, which has developed a new type of toilet for use in places lacking sanitation infrastructure. Their “iThrone” uses a waste-evaporating material and a urine-powered bio-battery to dehydrate human waste as a way to replace flushing in places with no sewage plumbing.
The pair were also the first ever to be selected together as co-ambassadors for the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Program, which seeks to increase understanding of the critical role of invention in improving quality of life and to encourage a new and diverse generation of inventors.
During the showcase, Yousef and Elasaad emphasized to participants that working with a team allows everyone to contribute their strength. Yousef trained as a lab scientist and holds an MBA, while Elasaad is a water system engineer. As the pair traversed the innovation-to-market pathway, they brought varied abilities to the effort. “We cover different parts of that journey,” said Yousef. “We have these different skill sets that all come together, and it makes it all possible.” Yousef later reflected on her experiences as a woman and daughter of immigrants in the innovation sphere.
“There’s definitely a lot of discounting that happens,” she said. “To see what AAAS and this initiative are doing to promote serious innovators and scientists who don’t look like the scientists that everybody imagines is really amazing.”
Knowing the importance of seeing oneself represented in a community, White made sure the event featured speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds, including minorities, women, and HBCU graduates who are now leaders in tech and entrepreneurship.
“It was very relatable for all of the students,” White said.
Participants also had the opportunity to be inspired by each other.
“I learned a lot from my peers, especially those who have been seasoned with years of experience,” said Barriffe. “It’s definitely powerful, especially as a woman of color in STEM.”
Under the leadership of AAAS STEM Program Director Iris R. Wagstaff, the current principal investigator of the NSF grant that supports the showcase, new strategic partnerships and collaborations have been formed, expanding the showcase and providing additional resources and training to students. Social media and online platforms also extend the showcase experience.
The conversation continues online with the newly launched Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM LinkedIn community for participants of the ERN conference and HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase, White said. The online platform means that tech and innovation leaders can reach a much broader cross section of students, including those whose ideas might not yet be fully fledged to take part in a showcase, she noted. Yet, the community has already become a hub for resource-sharing, regular online workshops, and ongoing conversation for students unable to convene in person.
Innovation, after all, is an ongoing, iterative process, White said, adding that students who attended the 2020 showcase were “very eager to go back to their campuses and continue working on these innovations.”
The students from the winning team also plan to continue pursuing innovation and entrepreneurship.
Seymour, for instance, is concerned that the Bahamas—his home country—and the broader Caribbean region lack STEM education resources. “There’s a huge demand for it,” said Seymour, adding that he hopes to get involved with “finding ways to push the envelope on how we utilize our resources” to encourage students to explore STEM disciplines from an early age. Focusing on the social capacity of innovation is another factor driving his interest.
“Sometimes the greatest ideas are just the ones that have the impact,” Seymour said. “If you can’t really help or change someone’s way of living, how impactful is that?”
This article first appeared in the May 29, 2020, issue of Science.