Six years ago, a handful of Northwest Indian College robotics students were looking for something to do when they came up with what they considered a relatively easy and fun idea: launching rockets.
They didn’t have much money, so they built water rockets — the kind elementary school kids might build — and put together a launch pad. The higher the rockets shot up in the air, the more attention they got from faculty and staff.
While researching how to launch them higher, the students came across a website that asked for the name of their program. They didn’t know how to answer, so they asked their teacher, Gary Brandt, what they should say.
“I said, ‘I don’t care, make something up,’” Brandt said. “Two days later I looked at what this website offered and asked (a student), ‘what did you call us?’ And he said he called us the Northwest Indian College Space Center.”
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That’s what the group of about a dozen students has been known as ever since, and they’ve come a long way from water rockets. They are now building high-powered, solid-fuel rockets that compete against some of the best colleges in the country. And as they attend more competitions, the program they started for fun has propelled them to opportunities uncommon for a college of its size.
Not long after the initial experiments, Brandt received an email from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium asking if the newly formed program was interested in the annual First Nations Launch for tribal colleges. The competition took place in spring 2010, and it was the first competition for the students at Northwest Indian College. They took second place.
A few days after they got back, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center called and asked about the college’s space center. NASA decided gave them a $5,000 grant each year for three years, enabling them to buy more rocket materials. NASA and other local businesses have provided more money since the initial grant.
That support has given the team the chance to participate in NASA rocket-launching competitions. In the most recent NASA Student Launch, on April 7, 2015, the team was tasked with creating a system that could autonomously pick up a sample, insert the sample into a rocket, launch to an altitude of 3,000 feet, then deploy and land a sample container. That aspect of the competition was designed to mimic a NASA mission of returning samples from Mars.
A team from Vanderbilt University won the overall competition. Among 35 other colleges participating were Cornell University, University of Florida, North Carolina State, and University of Louisville.
“To see them face-to-face with these graduate and undergraduate engineering students and be able to not only talk the same language, but be able to argue, discuss pretty high-level stuff, I find that incredibly empowering and exciting,” Brandt said.
Northwest Indian College finished 21st at the competition. The highest they’ve ever placed is 12th.
In addition to joining the competitions, five students have earned NASA internships. One of them is Christian Cultee, 21, who went to Ferndale High School before attending Northwest Indian College.
“It’s given me a lot of experience and a ridiculous amount of exposure — tons of networking opportunities and stuff like that,” Cultee said.
Cultee is studying information technology and hopes to transfer to University of Washington. He says the internships are not much different than his work at Northwest Indian College — they simply give him a project and expect him to somehow figure it out.
“They just assume that you can do it, and there hasn’t been a time where we haven’t,” Cultee said. “Just having that support and encouragement just makes a big difference.”
For the First Nations Launch in Wisconsin this year, the team built a replica of the rocket outside of Rocket Donuts in Bellingham, which won the team an award for aesthetics.
Raven Redhorn, 38, and Murray Phair, 47, put the finishing touches on that rocket. Both of them are going to school after having worked most of their adult lives in the casino business. They were looking for a new path, and they say the space center has provided that.
Other students, like 31-year-old Andrea Williams, say the experience has helped them learn how to communicate.
“It’s helped me grow more, I used to be really shy and not want to talk to anybody, and talking in class was really hard,” Williams said. “Now I talk more in class, and I’m out there doing things and that’s because of the rocket club.”
The college does not offer an engineering degree, so the club is an extracurricular activity. There are no formal meetings; students come in and work when they get the chance. Brandt said his goal has always been to get people interested in science, and eventually he wants to get a pre-engineering program started at the college.
His wife, Shelley Macy, a Northwest Indian College faculty member, said the space center gives students, no matter what they’re studying, valuable problem-solving experience.
“What I see is that students get to do something that’s really interesting, that’s hands-on, that’s all about creativity and problem solving, and it’s usable in any area that they would want to go into,” she said. “It draws on their ingenuity and ability to make do with what you’ve got.”