Photo by Alysa Landry
Darron Tewa, Hopi, holds a photograph of Mars in front of the Mars Yard students are constructing at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute.

Mars in New Mexico: SIPI Students Transform Desert Into Martian Landscape

Alysa Landry

To the carefully trained eye, the stark desert landscape of New Mexico looks surprisingly like the surface of Mars.

That’s according to a group of rising scientists at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), a community tribal college in Albuquerque that routinely produces graduates trained in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Here, in a nondescript warehouse on the edge of campus, students in the institute’s engineering and technology programs use red dirt from the surrounding hills to reconstruct the Martian landscape. They call it the Mars Yard.

The irony is not lost on the students, who come from 120 different tribes and pueblos. The 165-acre campus is about equidistant from Roswell and Aztec—sites of two of New Mexico’s most legendary alien encounters.

Kyle Baker, of Seba Dalkai, Arizona, works in a computer lab at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. (Photo by Alysa Landry)

“I always tell my students if they want to go to Mars, just go to New Mexico,” said Nader Vadiee, lead professor and coordinator of the engineering program. “It’s no wonder the aliens always visit New Mexico. We’re using natural dirt to build a landscape just like Mars.”

The project, known as the Intelligent Cooperative Multi-Agent Robotic System (or I-C-MARS) is funded through a $1 million NASA Tribal College and University Experiential Learning Opportunity grant. Now in its second of three years, the grant allows students in one of the nation’s largest tribal engineering programs to work with cutting edge technology—some of which may end up in space.

“We work interactively with NASA,” said Brandon Ray, an engineering student at the University of New Mexico and a teaching assistant at SIPI. “We troubleshoot here and then give NASA feedback.”

Brandon Ray, Navajo, manipulates sand in a device that simulates the surface of Mars. (Photo by Alysa Landry)

Students work side by side with SIPI graduates, mentors and professors to design, build and program all components of the Mars Yard. That includes the rovers, battery-operated robots that explore the surface and geology of the simulated planet and collect mineral samples. Controlled by students, the vehicles represent a miniature version of NASA’s rovers, which since 2003 have roamed the surface of Mars.

“If we don’t have the right component, we make one,” said Ray, who is Navajo. “Parts we can’t find, we build with a 3-D printer.”

SIPI plans to unveil the Mars Yard by fall, Vadiee said. Now, however, the warehouse looks like a giant sandbox. A mural of Mars’ Gale Crater is painted on one wall and a pile of dirt covers a concrete floor. When complete, the yard will function as a classroom with balcony seating for spectators and green screens to simulate the Martian environment.

In the meantime, rovers navigate a temporary mini-Mars Yard, an indoor obstacle course that features foam boulders and a cardboard cutout of a green Martian. Students control the rovers by computer, and they can only see to maneuver through tiny onboard cameras, much the way NASA scientists view Mars.

For some students, the project resembles a slow-moving videogame. For others, like 24-year-old Jasamaine Martinez, it represents the promise of a fast-paced career in science and technology.

Brandon Ray, left, and Tomzack Billie demonstrate how the miniature Mars rover works. (Photo by Alysa Landry)

Martinez, Navajo, earned an associate’s degree in pre-engineering at SIPI and spent a summer interning at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Now a civil engineering student at the University of New Mexico, she is eying a career in infrastructure development on the Navajo Nation.

“Going to NASA was probably the best thing I ever did,” she said. “I learned that engineers are passionate, and I want to use that passion to help the Navajo Nation tackle its issues with transportation.”

The promise of working with NASA leaves many students starry-eyed, Vadiee said. But the purpose of the I-C-MARS grant is actually more down to earth.

Eighty percent of incoming freshman at this small tribal institute are not prepared for college-level science or math, Vadiee said. The school, one of two tribal colleges to offer free tuition to members of federally recognized tribes, supports about 400 students. The average student is 28 years old, and 14 percent are single mothers.

Vadiee applied for the grant as a way to “make science and math more exciting.” He uses the partnership with NASA to encourage students to take courses in science, technology, engineering and math.

“We struggled to get students to enroll in physics classes until we added NASA to the course name,” he said. “Then we tapped into the Mars Yard project and we piggybacked off the prestige of NASA. Now the courses are full.”

While fun, building a replica of Mars is not an end in itself, Vadiee said. The program equips students with the skills needed for a variety of careers in the STEM fields.

Twenty-year-old Joaquina Castillo, Navajo, plans to earn an associate’s degree in pre-engineering from SIPI then transfer to the University of New Mexico and eventually pursue a career in biomedical engineering.

Jo Castillo, a student at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, checks on the school’s 3-D printer. (Photo by Alysa Landry)

“The sky’s the limit,” she said. “In 15-20 years, I’d like to be back on the Navajo Nation, studying uranium and high rates of cancer.”

Twenty-six-year-old Adrianna West, Navajo, wants to study architecture and civil engineering, then return to Dennehotso, Arizona.

“I plan to work with my home community,” she said. “They need someone to design and remodel bridges and roads.”

Adrianna West, Navajo, works in a computer lab at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. (Photo by Alysa Landry)

Only a tiny fraction of students now maneuvering rovers through the Mars Yard will ultimately work with space exploration, Vadiee said. But that’s fine with him.

“Robotics and Mars are not my goal, but to get students to learn the relevant math and science,” he said. “We build stuff here, real stuff, and we teach students the math and science and physics and technology behind it.”

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