It’s not uncommon for teens to eagerly get out on the road—but most of them don’t hit the highway to do field research in engineering! Nicolas Salas is a 15 year-old student at Trewhela’s School in Santiago, Chile. Following an interest in Inka culture, he was one of 24 researchers on a trip to reverse-engineer the historic transportation system in South America.
Salas, who went with professors and college students from across the globe, was by far the youngest member of the group. He was inspired to go after a class field trip to the Universidad de Talca, where he heard Arizona State University professor Cliff Schexnayder give a talk on engineering. Schexnayder, a lead member of the Inka Road team, mentioned the project and sparked Salas’ excitement.
“I was quite interested in Inka culture,” Salas says, “so I asked if I [could] join the next expedition to the Inka Road. [In] February, I received a reply from Mr. Schexnayder, [asking] if I was still interested in going. Without [even] thinking about it, I replied yes.”
Accompanied by Ricardo Jofré, who teaches music at Trewhela’s, Salas set off for Peru in July 2011. Before he even got close to the Inka Road, Salas says he was learning what it takes to be a civil engineer.
“When we were flying to Cusco I didn’t have any idea of engineering, although my parents are engineers. So I started learning: Tim Becker and Jennifer Shane made me a short introduction of what is engineering in the airplane and at the airport; Kathleen helped me with some vocabulary. My Chileans and Peruvians friends (Edgar, Pedro, Rudy, Camila) also helped me to understand how things work.”
Lessons on the road: From engineering to mother tongues
Salas arrived in Cusco, Peru—the capitol of the Inka Empire—without any engineering experience. Working under the guidance of Christine Fiori, the principal investigator of the project, Salas still proved to be an important member of the team.
“I took lots of pictures and helped with measurements,” Salas said. “Sometimes I was the translator and a few times I cleaned the environment. Whatever I did, I was very happy, because I knew I was being useful for the research.” In addition to the field tasks, Salas also learned invaluable life lessons beyond engineering.