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Tribal College Students Simulate Mars

Elaine Baumgartel
Mural of a rover painted on the side of the main Mars yard warehouse.

A small battery operated rover rolls back and forth across a tiled floor. It slowly jerks past foam boulders and a green Martian cutout. A few feet away a student types on a computer, controlling the vehicle. The mini-Mars yard room is in full swing at the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Credit Elaine Baumgartel / KUNM
Roadrunner rover near a green Martian cutout in the mini-Mars yard room.

Nader Vadiee, Phd., one of SIPI’s engineering instructors, said the college has one of the largest tribal engineering programs in the United States.

Vadiee says he started the Intelligent Cooperative Multi-Agent Robotic System (I-C-MARS) project in 2014 through the NASA Tribal College and University Experiential Learning Opportunity (TCU-ELO) grant.

SIPI received nearly $1 million in grant money and was one of three tribal school recipients, Vadiee said.

“So we’re kind of simulating what NASA scientists are doing when they are exploring Mars,” Vadiee said.

The project allows students to work with rovers in a simulated Martian environment called a Mars yard, Vadiee said.

The Mars Yards

Vadiee says SIPI has two Mars yards onsite, the planned main Mars Yard and the temporary mini-Mars Yard.  

The current mini-Mars yard is a temporary space housed inside SIPI’s STEM building. The mini yard is a room lined with curtains and filled with foam obstacles and tiny rovers called Roadrunners.  There are different sets of customizable lights on the ceiling to simulate different environments.  Behind the curtains are computers where students type in commands for the rovers.  

Students can only see through the Roadrunner’s tiny onboard cameras which makes maneuvering the rovers challenging. The intentional delayed signal between the computer and the rover simulates the lag of NASA transmissions.

“For these types of projects you just have to be patient,” said Tomczak Billie, a teaching assistant and SIPI graduate.  Billie says it is very slow compared to playing a videogame.

Credit Elaine Baumgartel / KUNM
Rover in main Mars yard warehouse.

The main yard is still under construction in a separate warehouse on campus. The yard is unfinished with a pile of dirt on top of bare concrete and a few rovers on display. An 8-foot-wall with a mural of the Martian Gale crater surrounds a shorter 3-foot-wall shaped like a sandbox. Vadiee says there will be a classroom where students control the rovers along with a spectator area above the classroom. It will eventually have green screens to simulate the Martian environment.

“Before it was just like a big pile of sand so we flattened it out tried to make it look as Mars-sy as possible,” said Jasamaine Martinez , a SIPI student and former intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

Martinez is bringing her experience at JPL to help build the main Mars yard.

“The rovers are on there now, it looks pretty neat so far and we just can’t wait for the whole sand to come in to make it look more realistic,” Martinez said.

The Manufacturing Lab

The I-C-MARS project also allows students to build and design custom rover parts with computer programming, Vadiee said.

Credit Elaine Baumgartel / KUNM
Tomczak Billie (left) and Brandon Ray (right) in the mini-Mars yard room controlling a Roadrunner rover from a computer.

Brandon Ray, a teaching assistant at SIPI and a UNM engineering student, said the “I-C-MARS project is . . . about 80 percent programming and 20 percent building hardware.”

Ray says he builds attachments for rovers using computer aided design and drafting (CAD) and 3-D printers.

“This one is called the Terminator rover. It’s going to have a mechanical arm attached to it which has a shoulder joint, elbow joint, wrist joint,” Ray said.

Beyond Rovers and Space Exploration

“All these kids who have come to SIPI are not going into a full-fledged engineering program,” Vadiee said. “We created some safety net programs like computer aided design and drafting so when they leave SIPI they have some skills that they can fall back to.”

Joaquina Castillo is currently a senior in SIPI’s pre-engineering program. Castillo was a part of the I-C-MARS project and worked mainly with 3-D printers in the manufacturing lab.

“I would say that engineering has definitely helped open up my eyes to all these other avenues of medicine that I want to pursue one day,”  she said.

Castillo said she wants to use her engineering skills by pursuing bioengineering and working with prosthetics. She is also interested in using better techniques to diagnose diseases and illnesses in her community.

“When people generally go into medicine they think biology and chemistry, they don’t necessarily think mechanics and circuits,” Castillo said.

Reinforcement Through Community

Vadiee says Native Americans have high communal values and generally want their children taking on jobs that will service those communities. Vadiee says with SIPI’s engineering program, students can apply their engineering skills towards community development by constructing basic utilities such as running water and electricity.

Credit Courtesy of Nader Vadiee
SIPI engineering instructor Nader Vadiee

“We are educating a culture with a lot of community ties and traditionally they don’t send their kids to engineering or technology,” Vadiee said. “So you need to get the community involved.”

Darron Tewa is from the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and a senior at SIPI. Tewa says his father’s job as a surveyor piqued his interest in civil engineering, and will apply his engineering degree toward improving his community.

“Right now the current project [on the Hopi reservation] is replacing water lines. So I want to be able to do that for my community,” Tewa said.

Tewa says giving back to his community is crucial because of a lack of resources on the reservation.

“Not much of us are returning home,” he said.

Learning Math and Science

In addition to improving communities, Vadiee said the I-C-Mars project exposes Native American students to science and math courses.

Jerrille Jones, another senior at SIPI, said he did not realize the impact of math and science until working with the I-C-Mars project.

“This was out of my comfort zone of learning,” Jones said. “Throughout this whole process of working with the Mars yard I’m actually learning more.  It really opened up my mind to space exploration.”

Vadiee says getting Native students involved with math and science gives them a higher probability of success at other schools.

“These kids don’t have any chance if they go directly from remote area schools to a major school like UNM or MIT or Berkeley. They are lost. So my job is to get them ready,” Vadiee said. “The playing field is not flat, so our job is to make it flat. So when they go to a bigger school they are competitive.”

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