Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Air Force Academy Spirit

Engineers assist Navajo Nation

By John Van Winkle

Academy Public Affairs

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz., – Cadets and civil engineering faculty are putting their skills to work this week on the Navajo Reservation.

A team of two cadets, two instructors from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and one family member, wraps up a week of working on traditional Navajo homes today, as part of the Academy’s continued cooperation with the Southwest Indian Foundation’s housing project.

The foundation works with tribal, military and government agencies to find adequate housing for homeless families and individuals in the Four Corners area, including the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni reservations.

The ties that brought the Academy team to the reservation over this spring break have their roots in an Academy program to provide budding engineers with hands-on experience, said Dr. Adrian Won, Academy civil engineering professor.

“We already have ties with the Southwest Indian Foundation, because of our civil engineering program for rising juniors,” said Dr. Won. He’s one of two Academy instructors giving up his spring break to work on the reservation, while his daughter Andrea, a recent civil engineering graduate from the University of Colorado-Boulder is working alongside her father and putting, their respective expertise to use.

During the summer, cadets majoring in civil or environmental engineering start building their own engineering expertise, by taking the required CE 251 course, known as the Field Engineering and Readiness Laboratory. Rising sophomore cadets learn multiple hands-on aspects of civil engineering work, while rising juniors who’ve taken the course already serve as leadership cadre. The summer course includes surveying, welding, heavy equipment operations, steel bridge construction, paving, and concrete work.

But the most visible and lasting component of the course happens when cadets team with active duty, Guard and Reserve civil engineers to build a two hogans.

Hogans are traditional Navajo homes, which are eight-sided and have an entrance

facing the east, to allow the morning sun in.

The Academy purchases the materials

to build the hogans, which serve as a training tool for the cadets. Once finished, the hogans are then declared surplus property, which the Southwest Indian Foundation obtains via the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office.

Since 1998, this process has allowed the Academy to build and donate 21 hogans, 19 of which now serve as home for Navajo families.

The two hogans built at the Academy last year are now at the St. Michael’s Association for Special Education in Window Rock, Ariz., and have a little bit of work left before these two Academy-built hogans can serve as homes for the school’s students.

On the first day of their visit, the Academy team was busy installing a railing on a hogan’s wood deck to allow handicapped access, as well as painting interior doors, hanging doors, installing a fire alarm and putting in fire extinguishers.

Additional activities came in the form of staining the deck to weatherproof it and adding a deck to another hogan.

“Their real challenge is having enough to keep us busy this week,” said Mr. Dan Derby on Tuesday. Derby is a civil engineering professor at the Academy, who is leading this year’s Academy contingent.

“We came down here on spring break to do volunteer work with the Southwest Indian Foundation, and we didn’t really know what we would be doing.”

But after a visit to the worksite with foundation site managers, jobs were assigned and tackled. However, this week, it holds more than just sawdust and paint for the cadets

“We’re also working to increase our cultural understanding,” said Mr. Derby. “You can’t do that without a good understanding the local heritage and history. So, we’ll take some time off to study that by visiting an Navajo pueblo.”

Getting his first taste of the Navajo culture and working on a hogan is Cadet 3rd Class Randy Semrau, a civil engineering major from Cadet Squadron 21.

“I’m kind of working the game backwards, seeing the final product before working on it,” he said. “But I get to see who uses it and how it’s put to use.”

While he’s gotten plenty of hands-on time this week, he’s also making time to keep up with his studies in electrical engineering, reluctantly admitting to bringing an EE textbook with him on this spring break.

Also doing school work on spring break is Cadet 1st Class Adam Comer of Cadet Squadron 37.

Comer is using this trip to finish up a 400-level independent research project to find ways of using more sustainable materials for the southwestern desert.

“For example, how can we make low-cost housing for people who are off the grid or away from adequate water supply,” he asked.

To answer those questions, he stopped in Taos, N.M., on the way to the reservation, to learn more about sustainable design by visiting the Earthship Project there.

The work also fits in with Cadet Comer’s role as vice president of the Academy chapter of Engineers Without Borders. EWB chapters work to provide engineering and instructional services to impoverished communities, with designs tailored for the circumstances and the area’s social norms. EWB’s end goals are to create a lasting structure for the community, which it can sustain on its own after a certain period of time.

For Cadet Comer, this is also his first experience working with a hogan and on the Navajo Reservation. He’s a mechanical engineering major, who recently won a Gates Scholarship and will work on a doctoral degree at Cambridge after graduation.

For the instructors, they’ll bring back the latest bit of site knowledge on how the hogans are used, and potential improvements to the hogan’s design, with a special emphasis on passive-energy efficiency.

According to former Navajo Nation president Kelsey Begay, the Navajo Reservation is 20,000 housing units short of actual capacity.

“Our challenge is to help provide safe and decent housing to those families and individuals who would have no way of obtaining a home without outside assistance,” he said.

The Southwest Indian Foundation is concentrating on the most dire cases – essentially, the poorest of the poor.’

This summer, Cadet Semrau will join approximately 70 other cadets during the first summer session to learn more about civil engineering and build two more hogans for the Navajo Nation.

To Top