First established in 1971, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one of two tribal colleges that the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) operates and funds. SIPI offers a variety of certificate and two-year associate’s degree programs, but its primary curricular focus remains the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Pre-engineering, computer-aided drafting and design, network management, geospatial information technology, and natural resources are among the programs available at SIPI.
Like Haskell Indian Nations University, the other BIE-operated tribal college, SIPI’s operating budget falls under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which in turn is subject to the congressional appropriations process. Recent political gridlock at the federal level has led to appropriations disputes, leaving SIPI with a lean and uncertain budget that covers little more than basic operations. Nevertheless, due to the work of dedicated faculty and a handful of large grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation, SIPI has developed state-of-the-art programs in engineering and engineering technology.
Dr. Nader Vadiee is the lead faculty coordinator for the pre-engineering program and the project director of the Intelligent Cooperative Multi-Agent Robotic System Robotics Laboratory at SIPI. Funded by a three-year, $1.2 million NASA and Department of Defense grant, Vadiee has overseen students working in the lab to develop what the space agency calls “swarmies”—independent rovers designed to work collectively in surveying terrain and gathering data. Another group of students has concentrated on developing SIPI’s “Mars Yard,” which has been carefully crafted to resemble the Martian surface for the swarmie test runs. Together, the efforts have been an unmitigated success, and during NASA’s recent Swarmathon competition at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, SIPI students took third place.
According to Vadiee, the key to SIPI’s engineering prowess is its Vertically Integrated Pyramid (VIP) mentorship model, which enables students at various points in their education to work with others in an effort to exchange knowledge, build confidence, and develop professional relationships. SIPI undergrads, for example, mentor local high school students and at the same time are the mentees of graduate and post-doctoral students from the University of New Mexico. Central to all of this, says Vadiee, is community. “We must not compete against one another,” he explains. “I have greater concern for the journey than the destination.”