Vertically Integrated: Community-Based Research Projects at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute

Apr 28th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Nader Vadiee

NATIONAL CHAMPS. In 2010, SIPI students won a national award for their wind turbine design.

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) seeks to meet the STEM (Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology) educational needs of American Indian college students. In an effort to fulfill this mission, SIPI employs paid student internships not only to retain students majoring in the STEM fields, but also to encourage students in developmental courses to stay in college and pursue STEM careers. Students are linked to each other and to graduate students, instructors, and industry professionals via the Vertically Integrated Pyramid (VIP) Model that SIPI’s Department of Advanced Technical Education has crafted to build the relationships and sense of community that are important to Native students. For their paid work on engineering-related projects, SIPI student interns are usually under the direction of graduate or post-doctoral students who also serve as mentors. Increasingly, the graduate students are SIPI alumni who are enrolled at nearby universities.

Central to the VIP model are the partnerships with other organizations and consortiums that promote educational access and excellence for Native students. During the past six years, SIPI STEM programs have collaborated with mainstream higher education institutions such as the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Tech, New Mexico State University, Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona, and Arizona State University, among others. The institute has also worked closely with other public and private institutions, including NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

Regardless of the institution or organization, SIPI seeks to maintain specific goals in all of its partnerships. All collaborations must be fair and equitable. They should help build capacity at SIPI. Resources should be shared between partners, and student job placement, recruitment, and advisory board engagement must remain central to the partnership.


ROVING. The SIPI robotics team tests its mobile robot platform at the Moon Yard at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

SIPI has also outlined what it calls the Seven Pillars of Research Experience for Undergraduates: 1) understanding the relevance of math, physical and social sciences, and computational tools to engineering and engineering technology research and development; 2) acquiring soft skills, creative and critical thinking, life-long learning, teamwork, time and resource management, and communication; 3) exposure to career and professional opportunities; 4) mentoring and tutoring opportunities, and following the VIP structure; 5) learning new and cutting-edge research and development in the field; 6) cross-disciplinary team projects; and 7) community-based research and development in renewable energy, sustainability, construction engineering, Mars Yard, and the Summer Tribal College and University Engineering Institute.

Today, SIPI boasts the largest and most tribally diverse engineering and engineering technology Associate of Science degree and certificate programs among tribal colleges and universities. The institute’s programs have implemented a 1+1+2+2 pathway, allowing graduates to transfer to any four-year engineering program in the country. Students may also enroll in a one-year certificate program to gain practical and hands-on skills that prepare them for entry-level engineering jobs and, at the same time, help with their retention and transition into pre-engineering coursework. Student research projects offered during the fall 2013 trimester illustrate the nature and diversity of SIPI’s engineering programs: mobile robot development, wind tunnel test-bed, bioengineering systems modeling and simulation, solar power plant and geothermal resources studies and community outreach, and design and environmental monitoring systems.

Through its vertically integrated approach, SIPI is working to prepare Native students to be productive life-long learners as tribal members in an ever-changing global environment. As a land grant institution, SIPI partners with tribes, employers, and other organizations with a stake in Indian education. An enduring commitment to student success is the hallmark of SIPI’s operations.

Nader Vadiee, Ph.D., is the lead faculty/coordinator of SIPI’s engineering and engineering technology programs, and the director of the Intelligent Cooperative Multi-Agent Robotic System (IC-MARS) Robotics Laboratory. He has served as the institute’s educational program coordinator, on the New Mexico State Math and Science Council, and in 2009 was selected as the Carnegie Foundation’s New Mexico Professor of the Year. He can be reached at:

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