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Capt. Jose Vergara, NJ Wing, empowers cadets to create virtual AE lessons and lead other cadets

Posted on 09/10/2020 at 06:35 PM by Virginia Smith

Capt. Jose Vergara and an NER-NJ-102 cadet
Capt. Jose Vergara, Commander of NER-NJ-102, started a video task force for cadets interested in working on virtual AE lessons.

September 10, 2020

Meet Capt. Jose Vergara, commander of NER-NJ-102, Captain "Bud" Jackson Composite Squadron. He has been interested in AE, STEM and the military since childhood. Today, he has been working in civilian service with the Army for 20 years, working on research and development in new technologies. He enjoys working in the Aerospace Education mission area of CAP in order to ignite a "flame in the cadets for curiosity in the AE-STEM field." Earlier this year, after COVID-19 closed in-person meetings, Vergara led his squadron to produce virtual AE lessons. "I saw the opportunity for members to start making videos about AE-STEM and other CAP topics and activities," he recalls. "The NJ-102 Video Task Force was born" The squadron and its task force were featured in a session on the topic of remote learning during the recent Civil Air Patrol National Conference. See their videos on the New Jersey Wing's Aerospace Education YouTube channel. We asked Capt. Vergara some questions about his squadron's AE program and his Civil Air Patrol career. His answers follow.

Current duty positions: 

I am unit commander of the Captain “Bud” Jackson Composite Squadron, NER-NJ-102. I also have duties as assistant Aerospace Education Officer and Leadership Officer.

Tell us about your CAP career path that led to your current role.

In 2015, my daughter, Veronica Vergara, was going to high school, and she expressed her interest in the Air Force. Then, I remembered many years ago a co-worker who talked to me about the Civil Air Patrol. I thought that CAP could be a good place to prepare her through a military style organization. I looked on the internet for a CAP squadron, and Veronica, my wife (Ceti Vergara) and I joined a small CAP squadron nearby.

I found out about the AE program, and I thought that I could teach it, as well as add STEM subjects. I requested to be the AEO, and I dreamed of sparking a flame in the cadets for curiosity in the AE-STEM field. 

However, after a few months in the small Squadron, we noticed that active membership was decreasing fast among the cadets and senior members. When my family joined CAP, we were determined to hold and see what could happen. I decided to also become the PAO, and I started marketing CAP in the local newspaper and online. In addition, we had a new commander, and he asked me to be the deputy commander, too. With the help of the few senior members, I tried new ways to discover and develop the interests of the cadets. Slowly, we finally had 16 cadets. After a couple years, we took a risky decision to move the squadron to another county and find a community more open and supportive to a military style organization like CAP. Voila! The magic happened, and we went from 16 cadets to 119 cadets in a year. We recruited new senior members, and set the goal of building leadership in the new cadets so they could lead each other. 

With a large rejuvenated squadron, we finally saw that we were coming out of the storm... and then, BANG! Another storm appeared, one that has clouded over us all: the pandemic. And to make things more interesting, I received the position as unit commander right as we were starting to meet virtually. From one storm to another. Now, it is my responsibility, as it is many commanders, to keep the flight level as the “pandemic” storm shakes us from side to side with new challenges. No one was prepared to run a squadron during a pandemic purely through virtual means. However, challenges create opportunities, if you have the right attitude when facing them. The pandemic showed us new paths and we created tools to run a squadron virtually. Now, we are even planning to keep using these tools after the storm passes. You know the old saying, “life gives you lemons; so make lemonade.” It is all about having the right attitude to create opportunities from challenges. 

Tell us about your aerospace education background and career as well as any awards you'd like to mention. 

I have been interested in AE, STEM, and the military since my childhood. Therefore, I first earned an Associate Degree in Aircraft Maintenance, and worked in the field for seven years. Later on, I obtained a bachelor of science in Applied Physics, and a bachelor of science in Electrical Engineering. I started working as an engineer (civilian service) for the Army in Research and Development, and I obtained an master's of science in Engineering Management. Today, I have worked for 20 years with the Army, and I have been responsible for leading in the development of new technologies that will support the security of this nation. Now, I have found another way to support this nation through being an AEO in the Civil Air Patrol. In 2018, I was named New Jersey Wing AEO of the Year.  

Why do you work in the Aerospace Education mission area? Why do you encourage youth in the Aerospace Education area?

There are a few reasons that I joined the AEO CAP Program:

While I was working for the Army, I volunteered as a coach for a high school chess team in a Chess League Competition that had 32 high schools competing. It was the first time that I seriously mentored and worked with kids. It was a great experience where I taught more than playing chess, but also how to apply chess principles to life. For example, one of my fundamental teachings was “Once you make a move on the chess board, you cannot take it back. The same goes in life. When you make a decision, there is no redo." I coached an underdog chess team to end up being the champions of the division. As I visited other schools during the competitions, I found out that not many kids had interest in the AE-STEM field. That worried me since I was working in Research and Development for the Army; I knew that we are in a technological race with other nations. I also knew that this nation could find itself in serious trouble if we did not inspire our youth to explore and go into the AE-STEM field. Then, I found CAP, whose mission areas of Cadet Programs and Aerospace Education did exactly that. So, my concentration in teaching changed from chess to AE-STEM, so I could continue helping the youth and this nation.

In addition to the previously mentioned motivation to teach AE-STEM, in 1946, congress passed Public Law 79-476, which initiated CAP. It says: “… The objects and purposes stated: To provide an organization to encourage and aid American citizens in the contribution of their efforts, services, and resources in the development of aviation and in the maintenance of air supremacy…" In 1946, the authors of this law knew the necessity for this nation to maintain “air supremacy” and asked CAP to help in this mission. I believe CAP’s AE-STEM program can help this nation to have air supremacy by sparking a flame of interest in the youth about AE-STEM. It is up to us, the CAP members, to keep in mind the importance and seriousness of the AE-STEM field issue and how it impacts the race that our nation is in with other nations. As CAP members, we have a national responsibility to help our nation maintain “air supremacy.”

Now that I am an adult, I see that, if I had mentors who could have helped me focus and perform well in the AE-STEM field during my childhood, my path would have been much less difficult. Now, I want to help the youth to discover and maintain an interest in AE-STEM so they can have a better journey that will take them to their AE-STEM professional goals.

Tell us about the Aerospace Education programs you use within your squadron or wing and externally. 

Our Squadron’s AE-STEM program aims to be innovative and challenging. We teach computer programing (i.e. Java and Python), AE health science, robotics (using CAP's Raspberry Pi STEM Kit), model rocketry, pilot ground school, general science interest, flight simulators, CyberPatriot, StellaXplorers and more. We are always looking for more interesting and challenging AE-STEM activities.

During outreach events, we use flight simulators and do expositions of STEM projects by the cadets. We set up tables and posters, and we have a marketing video running with activities in CAP. Also, we provide pamphlets made by our cadets and senior members about CAP and our Squadron.

What is the best advice you have for a new AE Officer working with cadets?

In my case, when I became the AE Officer for my squadron, I did not have anyone to show me the ropes. I looked for help from other units' AE Officers and the NJ Wing AE director (Lt. Col Michael Castania). My advice is to collect advice, suggestions and information from other, more experienced AEOs. Then, make your own plan and implement it! Always be ready to be flexible and open to change when something is not working. Find parents of cadets that are interested in or work in a STEM field. Try recruiting them to be AE-STEM officers, or at least request their help to provide some type of aid and support as sponsors.

Utilize cadets’ interests in AE-STEM, and encourage them to give short presentations on topics they are interested in. Over time, they can develop classes about AE-STEM subjects, too! You may be surprised what cadets can pull out of the hat. My cadets have been great teachers and motivators in the AE-STEM program leadership.

Do not, I repeat, do NOT be afraid to try new things! Do not stop the dreamers. Instead, help them to achieve their dreams by providing guidance, resources and support.

Do you have any suggestions for how to conduct outreach in schools and communities?

My advice for when we are able to meet in-person more freely and conduct outreach in schools and community events is...

Schools:

  1. Find schools that have a Science Fair, and volunteer a team of cadets and senior members to have a booth for AE-STEM activities.

  2. Use the flight simulators and other fun AE-STEM activities to attract prospective cadets.

  3. If you have a color guard team, they can present the colors to open a science fair awards ceremony. The science fair activity was a suggestion I received from another squadron, and we put it into practice with some great results!

Local libraries:

  1. We reserved a date and time with a local public library to conduct an AE-STEM activity for the public, inviting middle and high school students from the community.

  2. Weekends and summer time are the best for gathering a crowd!

 Workplace Family Day:

  1. Some large companies and organizations have a picnic or family day for their employees and families.

  2. Request permission to set up a table with AE-STEM activities for the children of the employees. We do this every year at Picatinny Arsenal Army Installation.

Do you have any suggestions for AEM recruiting or retention?

Contact the Science Department supervisor of a local K-12 school and request a meeting. Prepare a short presentation of the benefits that the school or teachers may gain by getting involved in the AEM program. Include a list of the STEM Kits that they can obtain. Also, bring an application form and explain how easy it is to complete one. Make sure that you explain the commitment required by CAP (six hours),  which is actually not much time at all!

A session on remote learning during the recent CAP National Conference featured work by your squadron's cadets. Please tell us how this became one of the squadron's projects and how it grew and developed.

You've heard it before, “Necessity is the mother of invention!” As we found ourselves adapting to the limitations of the pandemic and meeting virtually, I saw the opportunity for members to start making videos about AE-STEM and other CAP topics and activities. The NJ-102 Video Task Force was born! I created a draft plan and presented it to a few cadet leaders so they could run with it and own the project. We created a video editing team and cadet leadership that created guidelines. The cadets do all the work, and I just make sure that we meet our own criteria and supervise their work. It’s important not to micromanage because it will turn away cadets.

The work belongs to all the cadets. It is like an orchestra; I see myself as the conductor, and they are the musicians. Without them, there is no music! The NJ-102, and the new NJWG Video Production Task Force are ongoing projects that I hope will continue on!

How many videos have you done/how often does your team produce them?

We have 7 videos published on the New Jersey Wing Aerospace Education YouTube Channel, and more in the works or soon to be posted. The team makes about two to three videos per month. The process is thorough to ensure videos meet criteria, make appropriate corrections, etc. The videos are available on the New Jersey Wing Aerospace Education YouTube page.

Why was it important for you to empower the cadets to take the lead?

Cadets are the future leaders of this country, and they have a stronger foundation in character, leadership and technical skills than many of their peers. Empowering them to lead will help them see that they have a purpose in CAP. Many stay busy outside of CAP meetings with tasks and responsibilities they take pride in and love to serve each other and their community.

In our Task Force, these cadets can feel a great sense of gratification and accomplishment when their videos are published for other benefits, sharing the wealth. What’s also great is that they can share this unique experience in their college/scholarship applications, explaining how they were able to help the education of the youth during such challenging times.

When they work on their videos, they develop new skills (software, video making, marketing, management, etc.) Outside of their squadron meetings, they continue to practice leadership, managemen and the chain of command.

Cadets are the main ingredient that think of new and creative ideas to produce excitement for all of us. They learn how to solve problems and not to be afraid to try new things. We need to help our cadets be innovators and risk-takers in their motivation and ambition to bring new experiences to their squadron. We should be the bridges to their visions, and not the boulders in the middle of the road to their dreams.

Do not give them the fish; teach them to fish!

Please describe how the work of the cadets in order to continue AE virtually has helped your squadron during COVID-19 restrictions.

I believe that squadrons can keep evolving at all times in order to improve and regenerate areas they could not before. When we went virtual, the cadets investigated and found platforms that we can use for our regular meetings. They briefed the senior members of their findings and plans. We provided comments and guidance. Cadets helped to prepare the curriculum for all regular meetings (AE-STEM, Leadership, etc). Senior members provided guidance and support. Cadets made instructional videos for all of us on how to use different applications and online platforms in order to meet and learn. Cadets created multiple virtual Google classrooms and drives where we could post our activity materials for organized and easy access. Cadets are very knowledgeable in maintaining our virtual meetings, and they are always looking for new virtual tools.

Innovation and open-mindedness to new ideas have been crucial. I ask and expect cadets to present new ideas for new programs, activities, etc. I do not discourage them from their ideas because I want to see them try and have courage. You never know what surprises they can bring you. Last month, the cadets organized a Virtual Aerospace/STEM Fair (like a science fair). It was well-organized and well-executed, and it was all their idea! A couple of weeks ago, they planned and executed a STEM Career Fair. The cadets invited and coordinated with speakers from New Jersey Liberty Science Center, Pfizer Pharmaceutical and Navy Nuclear Submarine.
Now, they are planning an Aerospace Virtual Competition for within the squadron, and, possibly, an inter-squadron event.

Please tell an anecdote of a rewarding AE experience working in Civil Air Patrol.

Just try, and have patience:

Four years ago, I proposed to advertise CAP in local newspapers. At the time, I was told that it was tried in the past and did not work.  I decided to go ahead, and I tried for a year. Then, Bingo! We recruited two cadets and two senior members (a family). After that, a father and daughter. They all became key members of our squadron.

Two years ago, a parent and cadet joined the squadron and introduced the idea of moving our meeting location to a town more open to a military-style location. This brought us to a new town where we grew to over 100 members within a year.

Sometimes it is like fishing; you have to throw the hook several times and be very, very patient. Give it enough time, and you catch a fish!

I proposed the idea to enroll a team of cadets in the StellarXplorers Competition (The National High School Space Challenge). Others commented that the challenge level of the competition was more for college students and higher. The belief was that it was a bad idea because it could frustrate the cadets with poor performance, since they did not have engineering experience. I decided instead to inspire the cadets to take the challenge. I told the cadets that the first competition was going to be a “Recon Flight Mission” for them to learn about the competition and get ready for the next season. At the end of the competition, the team ended up winning first place for the Northeast Region. Not bad for a Recon Flight Mission! Just try, take the challenge, and learn.

Is there anything else that we didn’t ask that you’d like to add for this spotlight on an AE Officer/Commander?
 
 

I am a dreamer, and I hope for everyone to learn to be dreamers, too! Maybe that is why I love science fiction. Maybe that is why I try to spread the love for AE-STEM. I am also a dreamer that adapts as the winds change. I cannot see the future, but I can push forward and recalculate. The goal is that we must keep moving forward and find out what is beyond the horizon. The role of AEO is to spark the flame of AE-STEM in the minds of our members and let them dream of new heights for a better future. Keep dreaming!

 

Video production task force
The NJ-102 Video Production Task Force has produced seven virtual learning videos and has made them available on the N.J. Wing AE YouTube page.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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