The Brashear Project: Program aims to expose teens to STEM careers using rehabilitation robotics

RIT electrical engineering professor Edward Brown receives major Heinz Endowments grant

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Edward Brown

Rochester Institute of Technology professor Edward Brown was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments for The Brashear Project, an initiative aimed at increasing participation of African-American males in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—by exposing them to engineering through design projects related to rehabilitation and assistive robotics.

“The No. 1 cause of spinal cord injuries for African-American males, particularly between the ages of 15 and 30, is gun violence,” said Brown, associate professor of electrical and microelectronic engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. “For every individual who dies due to a gun assault, there are between three and six others who are wounded. Many of those wounds result in the individual being paralyzed and permanently wheelchair-bound. These are the invisible men of inner city America, and there are large populations of these men in every major city.”

Brown’s project aims to connect this socio-cultural issue with technology solutions and to engage middle- and high-school-age students in conversations about careers in STEM with a focus on how these careers can be a means to uplift communities and individuals.

“What would happen if I brought this experience of interpersonal gun violence—that happens to be culturally relevant and unique to this particular population—into the STEM classroom? How might that enhance their learning and appreciation of robotics and engineering as a whole?” Brown said.

The grant will fund preliminary studies toward designing the learning objectives and hands-on activities for the project as well as recruiting participants. Brown will work through the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and its spinal cord injury unit to interview African-American males who have injuries due to gun violence. The process is a participatory-action research approach, he explained, and in this manner, the men would talk to the student-participants during program meetings about disabilities, providing a social and cultural context for the students’ engineering robot design activities.

“Being young, black, male, disabled and having their disability due to inter-personal gun violence places these individuals in a rather distinct category,” he said. “There are several social stigmas and personal challenges that they have to address and overcome on a daily basis. They have a unique and compelling story that I want the students to hear.”

Brown’s area of expertise is in rehabilitation robotics. He studies how robots can be used to help individuals with different types of physical disabilities in performing tasks that people take for granted such as picking up a bottle or grasping a pen. It was during his sabbatical from RIT last year that Brown worked at the Quality of Life Technology Research Center, an engineering research facility in Pittsburgh, and a joint program between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Its focus is on researching and developing technologies for the physically disabled. It was here the new program began to take shape, and he’ll use the relationships developed during the sabbatical to start this research work.

The new project is named after Carl Brashear, the U.S. Navy master chief who became the first African-American master diver in 1954.

Brown met Brashear while he was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. He was inspired by Brashear’s story of overcoming racism and disability during his career and how he continued on active duty after an injury during a demolition operation off the coast of Spain. Brashear lost his leg during that operation, but he became the first amputee to be re-certified as a Navy diver, a position he held for 10 more years. He was the subject of the movie Men of Honor.

“Talking to him back then was very inspiring for me, and I know that his story will inspire the students participating in this program. It seemed fitting to name this project after him,” Brown added. “This project allows me to have a conversation with the students, not only about engineering, robotics and pursuing a college education. But we can also talk about disability in the black community and the social impact of gun violence in the inner city.”

About the Heinz Endowments: The Heinz Endowments supports efforts to make southwestern Pennsylvania a premier place to love and work, a center for learning and educational excellence and a region that embraces diversity and inclusion.