Ayanna Howard

Ayanna Howard

Georgia Institute of Technology
Ayanna Howard
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Ayanna has designed robots that can think for themselves. When she was at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she worked on developing the next generation of Mars rover. Through artificial intelligence, this robot was designed to be independent-minded enough to explore the Martian terrain on its own, without having its every move programmed by a human. On a future mission to Mars, Ayanna's robot would have been able to collect and analyze data and samples that may help determine whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. Ayanna is now teaching and researching at Georgia Tech, working to discover new ways that robots can help both in space exploration and in assisting people on Earth.  Inspired by the TV show “The Bionic Woman,” in which a severely injured woman attains extraordinary powers through artificial (bionic) limbs, Ayanna decided at age 11 that she wanted to create artificial limbs for people. She planned to go to medical school, but discovered she hated biology—especially dissecting frogs. Then she heard about robotics and realized that, if she became an engineer, she could do exactly what she wanted to do.  Ayanna developed a math and science mentoring program for junior high school girls. She’s also volunteered as a computer tutor at a shelter for battered women. She likes traveling and going to see live jazz bands. Ayanna also loves watching science fiction movies and cartoons with her son.  See a great video of Ayanna and her Mars robot on PBS’s Dragonfly TV.  

  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Dr. Ayanna Howard

How long did it take you to actually make a fully functioning robot like SmartNav or SnoMote?
It took about one year to build a working prototype and one more to get it functioning robustly in hazardous environment, with smarts.

Have you had any other jobs besides being a roboticist?
I’ve always been a roboticist – studied robotics at school, then was a roboticist working at NASA, now at GeorgiaTech. 

The answer to switch really depends on your interest level. If you haven’t taken any Civil Engineering courses yet, then it becomes more difficult to determine which you most enjoy until you do. I would not base a decision though on which courses are easier. Throughout your education, you’ll encounter courses that are both hard and that are easy. Their level of difficulty doesn’t always correlate with your natural talent; sometimes it has to do with how the information is taught and whether it’s presented in a manner that is compatible with your learning style.

 I first learned how to solder when I was in middle-school. Wasn’t technically an engineer then, but was doing things that were engineering-focused. 

My dream job started when I received my first summer internship at NASA while in college. I worked on a space-related project focused on satellite communications. By the time I left NASA, I was programming advanced robots that might one day explore Mars. I still have my dream job - but now I'm designing robots to help children with disabilities. 

You definately seem to have one of the key ingredients - Motivation. As you go through middle school and continue through high school, try to take as many math and science courses as you can get your hands on. I also suggest trying to join a robotics team (or building/programming your own robot with kits such as the LegoMindstorms or the Vex robot starter kits).