On a vast reservation of desert and mountains, a place where 30 to 40 percent of residents don’t have running water, Navajo Technical University is home to arguably the best advanced manufacturing lab in New Mexico, apart from the Los Alamos and Sandia national defense laboratories.
There, in a 5,500-square-foot steel building known as the fabrication lab, students learn to operate cutting-edge manufacturing and analytical equipment and conduct research alongside faculty and graduate students from larger universities who are drawn to the fabrication lab’s unique capabilities and the expertise of Navajo Tech’s staff and students. Through this lab and related degree programs, Navajo Tech is expanding access to engineering fields for Native Americans, building crucial high-tech capacity for the Navajo Nation, and changing the economic outlook for the families of graduates employed by the lab, allowing them to stay close to home without compromising their ambition.
While several Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) offer associate degrees in engineering, only Navajo Tech offers engineering bachelor’s degrees to date. But the university’s success demonstrates one type of pathway—among many that are needed—to make careers in science accessible to more Native American students.
Nationally, a mere 360 American Indian or Alaska Native students earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2018, a number that barely budged from the 345 recipients who earned degrees a decade earlier. In a rapidly growing field, that means that American Indian and Alaska Native representation among B.A. recipients in engineering dropped from 0.5 percent to just 0.3 percent.
Manufacturing is a huge opportunity for us as Navajo people. For people who grew up in very secluded areas, I always think of it as, hey, we’re natural engineers.
Marcie Vandever, 2022 Navajo Tech graduate
Recent graduates and students from Navajo Tech have been hired for jobs and internships with an array of top employers, including NASA, Los Alamos National Lab, Sandia National Laboratories, Intel, and contractors for NASA and Marshall Space Flight Center.
Yet while Navajo Tech is one of the largest Tribal colleges, only a handful of its students earn degrees or credentials in STEM fields each year—far fewer than the university would like. This situation is rooted in the lack of funding available for Tribal colleges, as well as the struggle for college success faced by students who grow up in rural communities with high poverty.
The hope is that the lab will inspire a new generation of future Navajo engineers and scientists.
Marcie Vandever is a 2022 graduate now working in New Mexico at an outpost of the Department of Energy’s Kansas City National Security Campus. After gaining more experience, she wants to return home to teach on the Navajo Nation. In fact, seeing Navajo Tech inspire young people is what led her to enroll at the university after she was hired one summer to help with a 3D printing camp run by the fabrication lab.
“These kids, their excitement, the shock and surprise of what they created, this is why I do what I do,” she said.
A university rises in the desert
Navajo Tech’s main campus is located two hours northwest of Albuquerque in Crownpoint, New Mexico, a high-desert town of 3,000 people. What would become the university was founded as the Navajo Skills Center in 1979, conceptualized as a vocational school that complemented the educational offerings at Diné College, which the Navajo Nation had established a decade earlier as the first Tribal college in the country—two hours away and over state lines in Arizona.
Over time, the skills center grew into a college, as it added degree programs while maintaining an emphasis on workforce-oriented offerings, making the Navajo Nation—which has the largest reservation in the United States—unique today among American Indian nations in having two Tribal colleges serve its people. Today, Navajo Tech is still growing; the Diné culture, language, and leadership program is developing what would be its first doctoral program. (“Diné” is what the Navajo people call themselves in the Diné language.)
Among the university’s strengths are an award-winning culinary arts program that helped cater the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and a veterinary technician program that prepares students to be the equivalent of nurses in veterinary care or go on to become veterinarians—especially important in this community, where sheep are a staple of life and the Tribal government leases land to cattle ranchers. And in October 2022, Navajo Tech broke ground on a new environmental lab in Chinle, Arizona, that will support efforts to clean up toxic uranium mining sites that have devastated the Navajo people for generations, leading to high rates of cancer and contaminating 85 percent of homes today.
Serving a remote reservation with poor internet access, Navajo Tech had to be inventive when COVID-19 first hit—particularly because in the early days, the Navajo Nation had the worst outbreak in the country. For instance, the university convinced the Tribal government to let it broadcast wireless internet over additional towers, and it launched a delivery service for printed homework that some likened to the Pony Express.
3D printers and Indigenous methods
H. Scott Halliday, a 59-year-old former mason from Maine, took a job at Navajo Tech two decades ago running a certificate program in computer-aided drafting. It’s fair to say that the success of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which he now directs—often while sporting a tie-dye lab coat—has something to do with his knack for grant writing and, on a deeper level, his uncompromising belief in what American Indian students should have available to them.
“Because you grow up on a reservation doesn’t mean you [shouldn’t] get the same opportunities as someone who goes to Penn State or Texas Tech,” he said.
Halliday leverages every grant for the next and holds government funders and corporate and philanthropic donors fast to their commitments to supporting minority-serving institutions, which have a long legacy of inadequate funding.
Because you grow up on a reservation doesn’t mean you [shouldn’t] get the same opportunities as someone who goes to Penn State or Texas Tech.
H. Scott Halliday, director of Navajo Tech’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing
Navajo Tech’s work in engineering and advanced manufacturing grew out of an initiative between NASA and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which helped fund the creation of the fabrication lab, with support from the National Science Foundation. The university now has Bachelor of Science degree programs in four engineering disciplines and two related Bachelor of Applied Science degree programs, including one in advanced manufacturing engineering technology. These are in addition to an array of associate degree and certificate programs in related fields. Notably, in 2015, Navajo Tech’s electrical and industrial engineering bachelor’s degree programs earned ABET accreditation, which is seen as a gold standard, a must for many top-flight employers when considering students for jobs or internships.
The fabrication lab specializes in additive manufacturing—3D printing, if you will—and its equipment includes a rare metal additive manufacturing machine for which a staff member had to undergo seven months of training in Nebraska to use. The lab also boasts analytical equipment such as CT scanners and a powder analyzer, and it recently received an award from the U.S. Department of Defense for a new scanning electron microscope.
Halliday’s goal is for students to follow their curiosity and discover their abilities and interests as they do, iterating over and over, a method that is natural to both STEM inquiry and Indigenous approaches to education.
Frequent research partners at the lab include Drexel University, the University of Nebraska, and New Mexico State University, where researchers have found both equipment and analysis skills in the fabrication lab that they lack on their own campuses. Last year, for example, the lab hosted a summer workshop for undergrads from Navajo Tech, New Mexico State University, and Prairie View A&M University—a historically Black university in Texas.
As extraordinary as the lab is, however, staff and students still run into some of the painful realities of life at a TCU. Halliday has found that grant funding is much more readily available for equipment than people; grants rarely cover more than a fraction of the salary of a faculty or staff member. That, paired with a lack of state funding and low enrollment numbers, has made it very hard for the institution to hire the staff that would help it realize its goals, which is particularly challenging in fields such as engineering, where specialized faculty are crucial to building a competitive degree program.
Limited staffing means the university can’t keep the fabrication lab open into the evening, as universities typically do, resulting in students sometimes having to wait for a turn on the equipment they require.
Demystifying a high-tech field
Vandever, the 2022 graduate working for the Kansas City National Security Campus, is a 40-year-old mother of two who had taught technology and done IT work in schools before enrolling at Navajo Tech. Last spring, she earned a double major in industrial engineering and advanced manufacturing technology. She also interned in the fabrication lab, where she was able to participate in research, collaborate with faculty and students from other universities, and train instructors on how to use equipment.
She began to realize her own capabilities when she would go home at the end of the day and think, “Whoa, I can keep up, I can understand what they’re talking about.”
A few years ago, Vandever did a Valentine’s Day project X-raying and analyzing the composition of chocolate bars, which gets at the kind of industrial engineering problems involved in manufacturing a food product; too many air bubbles may leave the customer disappointed, while too dense a chocolate bar is costly for the company. She was surprised to find that the chocolate from a $1 assortment was denser—and thus perhaps better quality—than an expensive brand.
For her capstone project, Vandever designed two versions of a stainless steel testing object, known as a “dog bone” because of its shape. Using the metal additive manufacturing machine, she printed one as close as possible to the dog bone shape, then made the other by printing a block of steel before cutting out the dog bone with another machine. At the end, Vandever compared the composition and strength of both objects. This type of research is helping develop opportunities for 3D printing innovation in manufacturing. Vandever’s poster about the project won second place at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s national conference in Phoenix in 2021.
These kids, their excitement, the shock and surprise of what they created, this is why I do what I do.
Marcie Vandever, 2022 Navajo Tech graduate
Vandever wants to gain experience in the field that she can ultimately bring home to teach on the Navajo Nation, and she’s also working toward her master’s degree from New Mexico State University.
When she worked in the fabrication lab and led tours for high school students, she would sometimes see that students were intimidated by the machinery. She would point out that traditional crafts such as silversmithing, weaving, or carving kachina dolls out of wood are all analogous to work done in the lab, which is shaping objects with tools, albeit more contemporary ones.
She also likes to note that Navajo citizens may be better prepared for engineering than they might think.
“Manufacturing is a huge opportunity for us as Navajo people. For people who grew up in very secluded areas, I always think of it as, hey, we’re natural engineers,” she said. “People who live in rural areas, they make do with what they have. If something breaks, they’re going to come up with a way to fix what they have.”
More local career options are needed
Navajo Tech officials have many plans to continue growing out their advanced manufacturing and engineering programming. To allow the lab’s further growth, they hope to break ground in the spring on a new 6,000-square-foot building, paid for with $1 million in federal economic development funding and $1.5 million from the Navajo Nation. Also in the works are apprenticeship programs with partner employers and a Ph.D. program envisioned initially as a joint program with the University of New Mexico. Officials want Navajo Tech to be a hub for graduates of other TCUs to transfer to and earn their bachelor’s or graduate degree in engineering and related fields.
The university is also working on spinning off a business unit to take on paid contracting work, which could include manufacturing a range of products, such as prosthetic devices or small wind turbines. And officials would like to see some of their graduates go out and create their own businesses.
All of these opportunities are fueling Adriane Tenequer’s hope for the future—for both her own career and those of the students coming up behind her. Tenequer, who received her bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 2019, is one of the four graduates who staff the fabrication lab, and she is also working remotely on her master’s degree at New Mexico State University—something that’s only possible because of the equipment available in the lab. She anticipates being able to earn her doctorate the same way.
What I want to do is have [Navajo Tech students], as soon as they graduate, start giving back to the community—start providing things that maybe everybody else has but the Navajo Nation itself doesn’t have.
Adriane Tenequer, 2019 Navajo Tech graduate
Once she finishes graduate school, Tenequer could see herself staying at Navajo Tech, working on the new business unit under development, or starting her own local business. She is also passionate about helping build similar opportunities for other Navajo Tech graduates, who, in the past, have too often had to leave the Navajo Nation in order to pursue their career.
“[At Navajo Tech], they really push you to go out into the world, get your experience, and then come back. And when students do that, they tend to go away and don’t come back. Or if they do, then it’s 10 to 15 years from now,” said the 38-year-old mother of two. “What I want to do is have them, as soon as they graduate, start giving back to the community—start providing things that maybe everybody else has but the Navajo Nation itself doesn’t have.”