SIPI Students Honored for Excellence in Robotics and Engineering

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SIPI Students Honored for Excellence in Robotics and Engineering

In recent years, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) has emerged as a leader in robotics and engineering—not just in the Southwest, but nationally. The Albuquerque-based tribal college took first prize in this year’s 2017 NASA Swarmathon Challenge held at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Up against an array of other institutions of higher education, including several research one universities, SIPI crushed the competition, scoring nearly twice as many points as the runner-up. Their achievement was celebrated during a special ceremony held at the University of New Mexico on June 14.

NASA organizes the Swarmathon Challenge each year as a way to promote the STEM fields and facilitate applied robotics. Indeed, there’s much more to it than just intercollegiate competition. The space agency plans on using the robotics technology that schools like SIPI are developing for its Mars exploration program. More specifically, Swarmies will roam the Martian surface, seeking out and collecting valuable resources like deposits of ice that future astronauts will be able to use to sustain their presence on the red planet and as a fuel source for return trips to Earth. SIPI students spend months devising and refining the algorithms that guide the Swarmies in their mission and enable them to efficiently discover those resources.


Swarmies like these, will one day roam the surface of Mars, seeking out resources for NASA’s astronauts.

“Getting a robot to work is really hard!,” exclaimed Kasra Manavi, a Ph.D. candidate in UNM’s computer science program, adding, “But when students are motivated they can really excel.” Manavi, along with a cadre of guest speakers that included UNM president Chaouki Abdallah, lauded the SIPI students and congratulated them on their remarkable achievement. “You guys have done great things,” Abdallah stated. “I look forward to what you do next.”

The SIPI Swarmathon team was headed by Nader Vadiee , chair of the engineering program, and included Schulte Cooke (Navajo), Emery Sutherland (Navajo), Christian Martinez (Laguna), Ty Shurley (Navajo), Glen Allen (Navajo), Brian Bahe (Laguna), Mathew Gachupin (Jemez), Geoff Gustina (Navajo), Simonie Salazar (Isleta), Joshua Sparvier (Assiniboine), Collin Whitehair (Navajo), and Andrew Wright (Navajo). Each team member was individually recognized and received a gift package.


“I have a vision for Native education,” states SIPI’s Nader Vaidee. “We believe in building capacity for tribal college students.”

UNM’s Distinguished and Regents Professor Ted Jojola (Isleta Pueblo) drew comparisons between their success and the great achievements of Indigenous peoples from the past millennia. “Our ancestors were great innovators,” he said. “They built pyramids and massive irrigation systems that sustained populations of 150,000 people . . . we need to bring back that sense of innovation.”

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