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Senior Member Denise Whelchel of California helps youth pursue careers in STEM fields

Posted on September 14, 2021 at 10:57 AM by Virginia Smith

Senior Member Denise Whelchel guides a student at a rocket launch

Senior Member Denise Whelchel is also a middle school science teacher.

September 14, 2021

Meet Senior Member Denise Whelchel. She is the AEO of Cable Composite Squadron 25 (PCR-CA-193) in Upland, California. She is a middle school science teacher and learned about Civil Air Patrol years ago from one of her students who is a cadet. Although she has been a CAP member for less than a year, she has been active in CAP, participating in several programs including the STEM Kit Program and Adopt-a-Classroom. Her squadron also is competing in this summer's National High Altitude Balloon Challenge. She holds a private pilot's license and is a former air traffic controller with the California Air National Guard. She is focused on helping the youth she leads embark on STEM careers. "Seeing my students and cadets excited about aerospace education is very rewarding," she says, "but even more rewarding is knowing my students are headed to the best colleges in the country to study aeronautics, engineering and science." She's recently had students graduate from some of the country's most prestigious universities. "Their successes are my successes," she says. We asked Senior Member Whelchel some questions about her CAP and teaching careers, and her answers follow.

How did you get involved in Civil Air Patrol?

I first learned about CAP from one of my former students who was the cadet  commander and recently earned the Spaatz Award, Thea Kirkpatrick. It wasn’t until several years later, after obtaining my private pilot’s license, that I became interested in CAP’s mission. 

How many years have you been in Civil Air Patrol? Tell us about your CAP career path that led to your current role. 

I’m a newbie to CAP – less than a year. As a middle school science and math teacher, I was interested in CAP’s aerospace edu

AEO Whelchel holds the Outdoor Quadcopter CAP STEM Kit.

AEO Whelchel enjoyed using CAP's Outdoor Quadcopter STEM Kit

cation curriculum because it aligned with many of the programs I’ve been teaching for years. In particular, I’ve taught rocketry for over a decade and built the same rockets when I was a child. My students have participated in robotics competitions and programmed using a Raspberry Pi.

This past year I participated in the inaugural year of the Adopt-a-Classroom program through CAP and received a $250 grant from the Air Force Association for our squadron to use toward aerospace education. In 2020, I received the Linda Hayden Memorial Future Woman Pilot Scholarship, awarded through San Gabriel Valley 99s to a woman student pilot who desires to fly. Prior to teaching middle school, I instructed children at AstroCamp in astronomy, physics, and high-ropes elements. My specialty in the California Air National Guard was air traffic controller. I served in the 261st Combat Communications Squadron, 146th Airlift Wing out of Van Nuys, California. I was FAA rated in Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) and Precision Approach Radar PAR) at George AFB. At the time, George had F-4s and OV-10s. It was very challenging sequencing fighter jets with prop planes. My specialty in the California Air National Guard was air traffic controller.

Besides being a private pilot, I’m also a Part 107 drone pilot and interested in onboarding with CAP in both areas. 

Please tell us about the school at which you teach and the grades and subjects you teach. 

I teach middle school 6th grade Earth science and 8th grade physical science. I also teach algebra and computer video/graphics and coding. I’m a student advisor and student council advisor. This coming year, I will be instructing a leadership class, which I’m excited about taking on. 

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

As a science teacher, the professional path as an aerospace education officer just seemed like the most natural progression. CAP has put together excellent aerospace opportunities and curriculum for cadets and science teachers to take advantage of, and I wanted to learn more about these programs. Seeing my students and cadets excited about aerospace education is very rewarding, but even more rewarding is knowing my students are headed to the best colleges in the country to study aeronautics, engineering and science. I’ve recently had students graduate from Harvey Mudd College, UC Berkeley and Harvard University. Their successes are my successes. 

Tell us about your recent Rocketry Day on the 52nd anniversary of the landing of the Eagle lunar module.

Every summer, I instruct students on how to build, paint and launch Estes rockets through our summer camp program at Carden Arbor View School. Students, ages 10 and up, start with the Wizard rocket and progress to more advanced rockets. Students who have taken rocketry with me more than once are allowed to build two- and three-stage rockets. 

Tell us about any Civil Air Programs you use internally and externally.

Currently, cadets are working on the StratoStar High Altitude Balloon mission to send a capsule with experiments to the stratosphere to study the effects of high altitude. I’d tell you more about our experiments, but it’s top secret at the moment. Squadron 25 Cadets also want to participate in CyberPatriot this year. We recently applied for the (Outdoor Quadcopter) drone STEM kit Eachine E58 drone, which can be flown with a phone and is a really fun little drone to fly. My 6th grade students participated in the ACE Adopt-a-Classroom program this past year. Unfortunately, Cadets could not come on campus to deliver aerospace lessons due to C-19 restrictions, but we plan on having cadets instruct students this coming year. [Editor's note: find out more about the challenge here.)

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

I am that new AEO working with cadets! Just jump in with both feet. Keep cadets engaged by sharing your expertise and lifelong experiences in aerospace. Let them know that perseverance pays off. Plan ahead for squadron meetings with meaningful content.  

Please tell an anecdote of a rewarding experience working with cadets and/or students or teachers:

A few weeks ago, the squadron commander, Capt. Travis Carney, and I brought our flight bags into the squadron meeting and revealed to cadets what pilots carry around in there. It was akin to pilot show-and-tell. We then made our way to the commander’s personal hangar, and he demonstrated how to preflight the Beechcraft Sierra. After that, we walked over to the flight school I trained at, CableAir, and went over preflight for the Cessna 172P I happened to do my check ride in. I asked a cadet if he wanted to check the fuel, and I’ve never seen anyone jump up on the wing spar so fast. 

Senior Member Denise Whelchel and student look up at a model rocket that has just been launched by the student Squadron opens StratoStar equipment for High Altitude Balloon Challenge

Senior Member Whelchel works with a student at a model rocketry launch, left. Her squadron cadets work on their High Altitude Balloon Challenge project, right.


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