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Georgia Tech professor helps children with special needs experience technology

Ayanna Howard always wanted to build the bionic woman.

Growing up in California, she was as obsessed with Battlestar Galactica as she was with Wonder Woman. Her plan was to become a doctor, but there was just one problem -- she hated biology.

With the help of summer programs and college extension courses in high school, Howard began to find her path to a career in robotics.

Today, the professor of bioengineering at Georgia Tech is not building the bionic woman, but through her company, Zyrobotics, she is using her research to help develop products that support the learning and development of children with different needs.

"I love to build stuff," said Howard. "I love having the ability to use my hands and my mind for something people see value in."


Initially, Howard had been on a different track at NASA. Her first project there was helping a satellite collect data. But as she worked with engineers, she began refining what she really wanted to do.

Arriving at Tech in 2005, Howard began working on ways to design technology that offered valuable learning while engaging children of various abilities.

With Zyrobotics, founded in 2013,  she uses the research behind the technology to create affordably priced products for use by individuals and institution.

"My goal is to get something at an affordable cost," she said. "Can we design technology that costs as much as a toy or game even though the research behind it is worth much more?"

The company now offers several products including TabAccess -- a bluetooth switch interface that allows anyone with motor limitations to use a tablet without touching the screen.

There is also STEM Storiez, a set of electronic books that utilize physical play to engage children in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Most recently, the company introduced The Zumo Learning System, a plush turtle/controller with a tablet, designed for children of all needs to learn STEM.

In her basement lab at Tech Square, there are a number of additional projects under development.

A retrofitted car that allows children with developmental delays to move around with assistance from a parent controlled app, sits near boxes of wires and adapters.

An exoskeleton that fits over the arm lets the user mimic movements of physical therapy exercises while playing a video game.

While most contact therapy robots are designed for adults, a robot playmate under development for Zyrobotics is designed to play video games with a child while also monitoring the child's performance.

If his or her performance levels drops, the robot, having measured factors such as eye gaze, response time or posture, begins asking questions to determine if the child is bored, tired or frustrated. Based on the responses, the robot will adjust the activity to re-engage the child.

Zyrobotics products -- which retail for about $250 -- are the work of a Howard and her team of researchers and engineers, clinicians and educators.

Though Howard had mostly worked to create products for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism -- it quickly became clear that children with typical needs could benefit from the products as well.

This fall, 25 schools across the country will conduct pilot tests with Zumo to evaluate how it could fit into the school curriculum and structure for inclusive classes as well as classes of only students with special needs.

For an engineer turned business owner, one of the biggest challenges for Howard has been finding a balance.

As a researcher, she is constantly designing new and better products. But at some point, you have to slow down and let the rest of the world catch up.

Her team encourages her to create, but also reminds her to focus on the products they have already introduced.

"It has been a very interesting experience," said Howard. "It has shown me what I really enjoy. I am a total engineer."

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.