When the Mesa Public School District decided to close the Aviation Camp summer program, Nancy Parra-Quinlan assumed its leadership and recreated an Aerospace Academy for students from all over the Phoenix Metropolitan area. Courtesy
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AFA in Action

Sept. 2, 2022

Teaching STEM to Kids in Need, AFA’s National Teacher of the Year: Nancy Parra-Quinlan

AFA 2022 National Teacher of the Year Nancy Parra-Quinlan. Arizona Educational Foundation/Mesa Public Schools via Facebook

Nancy Parra-Quinlan was nearly two decades into her teaching career when she introduced STEM to her students and changed her school—and her own life—for good.  

A 7th and 8th grade science, STEM, and Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher at Kino Junior High School in Mesa, Ariz., Parra-Quinlan (or “Mrs. P-Q,” as her students call her) was named the Air & Space Forces Association’s 2022 National Teacher of the Year (TOY). The award is sponsored by Rolls-Royce North America.

Parra-Quinlan’s first STEM class was an elective in 2011 and interest was so strong that within two years, her entire curriculum six-period schedule was nothing but STEM electives, including robotic programming, 3D modeling, DNA comparison, and aeronautic engineering.

“I’ve even taught on my prep period in past years, and taught seven out of seven periods, because we’ve had so many kids that want to be in the programs,” Parra-Quinlan said.

She attributes the students’ enthusiasm to their natural desire to be hands-on learners. STEM classes provide an outlet for students to not just sit and listen, but engage with the material and their classmates, practice leadership, and learn how to apply knowledge as they acquire it.

Traditional classes are tailored to certain kinds of students, she said. “If you’re not an auditory [learner], you lose interest very quickly,” Not in her STEM classes, though, where “students get to talk to other people. They get to move around. They get to use things with their hands.”

Parra-Quinlan said such opportunities are especially important at Kino Junior High, a Title I school in an economically disadvantaged area of Mesa. Title I schools are schools with high number of students from low-income families who may have a high risk of failing State academic standards. Her classes offer a glimpse into careers that might not even be imagined in such challenged communities.

“They need to see that there’s a little bit more beyond their neighborhood,” Parra-Quinlan said. “Our kids don’t have a lot of experiences, whether it’s what their parents do for a living … or what kinds of activities they do outside of school. So we have to find an opportunity for them to be exposed to those things.”

Parra-Quinlan creates opportunities for her students both inside and outside of the classroom, too. “RoboKolts,” for example, is an extracurricular robotics team she coaches for Kino Junior High students participating in the national FIRST LEGO League. They compete with other schools to build and program LEGO robots while simultaneously building their own research projects and engaging with one another as a team.

Another extracurricular program Parra-Quinlan teaches: Aerospace Academy, a two-week summer camp that exposes students throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area to STEM careers. Parra-Quinlan’s campers have taken tours of Boeing’s AH-64 Apache helicopter factory and a Southwest Airlines maintenance hangar, and they have also met air traffic controllers and other Federal Aviation Administration staff at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

“The kids got to see that being in aviation or being in aerospace doesn’t mean just being a pilot or being an astronaut,” she said. “There’s more out there for them to explore if they’re interested.”

As a captain in the Civil Air Patrol, Parra-Quinlan is an Aerospace Education Officer and helps cadets pursue aerospace career goals, while helping local teachers access CAP’s considerable STEM resources.

That kind of communal support and involvement is the heart of being a teacher, whether teaching students, cadets, or other teachers. 

“You need to find your tribe,” she proclaimed. “It’s super important that you find people who can be a resource for you.” Parra-Quinlan’s goal as the 2022 AFA Teacher of the Year is to help other teachers at disadvantaged schools around the country provide their students sustainable, equitable opportunities to engage with STEM education.

Second-Place: Robbie Ferguson

Robert “Robbie” Ferguson, right, and students prepare a quad-copter for U.S. Drone Soccer. Courtesy

Robbie Ferguson teaches aerospace engineering and computer science to 9th-12th grade students at Westminister High School in Westminister, Colo. His passion for STEM and aviation has led him to partner with NASA and the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology to develop and define his robust aerospace program. Ferguson’s newest course, “Drone Operations and Robotics,” gives students the opportunity to earn college credits and obtain their FAA Part 107 Commercial Remote Pilots License. It’s all part of his mission to help “students to obtain even more industry certifications so that they can transfer these skills toward post-secondary education or join the aerospace workforce right out of high school.”

Third-Place: Dr. Marina Mosneaguta

Dr. Marina Mosneaguta. Courtesy

Dr. Marina Mosneaguta teaches 6th-8th grade math and is the STEM lead at Alice Drive Middle School in Sumter, S.C. She leads the Students Spaceflight Experiments Program, helping them conduct real scientific research, and organizes virtual meetings between her classes and STEM professionals, including aerospace engineers, astronauts, and even Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David D. Thompson. “Providing students with global education opportunities allows them to compete for jobs both nationally and internationally,” Mosneaguta said. “As a result, students develop global competence and STEM knowledge needed to understand and participate in a globally connected world.” She is also the adviser for the Student STEM Ambassadors Program for outstanding students in all disciplines and is the National STEM Honors Society Chapter adviser.