Courtesy Navajo Technical University
Senator Tom Udall with Navajo Technical University Maker Team at U.S. Capital Hill Maker Faire on June 21. Senator Udall is holding the trophy the NTU team received at the Innovation Challenge. Pictured, from left, are: Hansen Tapaha, Ericka Begody, Senator Udall, Chris Owens, and Kirsch Davis.

NTU Engineering Team Takes First Place in Innovation Challenge

Kim Baca

A team of Navajo Technical University electrical engineering students has won first place in a National Science Foundation-sponsored tribal college competition by creating a device to help conserve or in some cases save lives on the reservation.

Ericka Begody, Kirsch Davis, Christopher Owen and Hansen Tapaha took top honors for their solar-powered medicine cooler project in the HBCU and TCU Making & Innovation Challenge June 20 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), the National Science Foundation and United Negro College Fund have hosted the contest for the past two years for HBCUs and tribal colleges and universities (TCU) to showcase innovation, entrepreneurship, and science and technology to problem-solve in their respective communities.

Begody, 28, a sophomore, came up with the idea to create a non-electrical cooling device after working as a nursing assistant and seeing several senior citizens on the reservation without electricity or unreliable electricity to refrigerate diabetic medications, antibiotics and other drugs. The medications need to be kept at a cool temperature or they become tainted or unusable. An estimated 15,000 homes are without electricity on the Navajo reservation, according to the students.

“I’ve seen the affects of diabetes on the reservation, and I thought the project would benefit not only the Navajo reservation but other communities,” said Begody, who switched her major from nursing to electrical engineering because she said nursing only had a limited amount of math and science.

Navajo Tech based in Crownpoint, New Mexico, was one of two tribal colleges competing in this year’s event. Aaniiih Nakoda College on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana submitted an idea to teach arts and crafts while providing science and technology activities to youth. Among the HBCU teams, Coppin State University took first place for creating a prototype of a rooftop garden system to address the issue of food deserts in urban environments.

Though the cooler was a prototype, the Navajo Tech team plans to build a working cooler within the next year by partnering with another college or university. The students also hope to eventually mass-produce the product and donate them to those in need. In addition to meeting with top officials with NASA, Navajo Tech students also participated in a patent workshop with a representative from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“Creating this project gives us more incentive to go bigger,” said Davis, 32, a Navajo Tech junior, who is also one of the four contest winners currently interning at NASA in Houston.

The contest coincides with the White House’s National Week of Making, a movement started in 2014 to encourage Americans to use science and technology to become entrepreneurs and foster the development of advanced manufacturing in the U.S. A White House Maker Faire is also held during the National Week of Making, showcasing entrepreneurs’ projects. Navajo Tech students participated in the Maker Faire where they also placed first in their category.

The wins are a boost for Navajo Tech, which established its Electrical Engineering Department just four years ago after changing the name and focus from electronic and computer engineering. Students now have options for concentrations in electrical engineering, computer engineering, electrical power or manufacturing. Department Chair Peter Romine said he changed the name and the concentrations after student inquiries in careers in electrical power. Several power plants, including coal-burning plants, are located in the Four Corners area.

Begody, who is interested in robotics related to the medical field, already has an idea for the next challenge. She plans on creating robotic prosthetics after seeing many of her patients struggling with simple things, such as eating or walking.

“Losing a limb is difficult and affects somebody’s quality of life,” she said.

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