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Capt. Nancy Parra-Quinlan of Arizona Wing promotes lifelong learning, STEM careers in squadron and classroom

Posted on January 11, 2022 at 10:20 AM by Virginia Smith

Capt. nancy Parra-Quinlan works in her classroom with an remote control model plane

Capt. Nancy Parra-Quinlan, an AEO in Mesa, Arizona, is also an educator who was named Arizona Teacher of the Year recently.

January 11, 2022

Meet Capt. Nancy Parra-Quinlan. A 28-year educator, her Civil Air Patrol story began six years ago as an Aerospace Education Member (AEM), and she later transitioned into a senior member position. She is the AEO for Falcon Composite Squadron 305 in Mesa, Arizona, and is the Assistant Director of Aerospace Education -- External for the Arizona Wing. She teaches STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) to 7th and 8th grade students at Kino Junior High School and was recently named Arizona Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Educational Foundation. A self-described "Space Nerd" with a passion for aerospace education, she says many of her cadets are interested in becoming aerospace professionals. She chose teaching as a career because she enjoys helping people. "I find it very rewarding to help students be successful in school and in life," she says. Her teaching philosophy is promoting the creation of lifelong learners. She also wants to make sure women and people of color are well-represented in STEM careers. "We need to make sure girls know that there are not 'male jobs' and 'female jobs' in STEM," she says. "They can dream of being whatever they want without being concerned about gender."  We asked her some questions about her careers in Civil Air Patrol and teaching, and her answers follow.

Tell us about your current duty positions. 

My current duty positions are Aerospace Education Officer at Falcon Composite Squadron 305 and Assistant Director of Aerospace Education -- External for the Arizona Wing. I currently am assigned to the 305th Squadron at Falcon Field in Mesa.

How and when did you get involved in Civil Air Patrol?

I got involved with Civil Air Patrol as an AEM when a fellow teacher told me about the program. 

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

I have been in the Civil Air Patrol for 6 years (I joined in July 2015). At first I was an Aerospace Education Member. When I met the local squadron at an education event, I talked to the commander about getting involved with the squadron. I started helping as the Assistant Aerospace Education Officer for the 305th. After the AEO left, I became the AEO for the squadron in 2018. I started working with the Wing AE office after getting to know the Arizona Wing Director of Aerospace Education.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your Civil Air Patrol experience?

The most rewarding part of my CAP experience has been working with the cadets on AE Night each month. We have had some fun lessons on rocketry, aeronautics and the High Altitude Balloon Challenge among other topics. It is still a structured activity, but it is more casual than a classroom setting. This gives me the chance to get to know my cadets and their interests.

Is there anything else about your aerospace education background that you'd like to include (education/awards/etc.) within and outside of CAP.

I was the Air Force Association state Teacher of the Year in 2017, and was 2nd runner up that year for the National Award. I was named the CAP Wing AE Officer of the Year in 2017 as well. I was awarded CAP AZ Wing Educator of the Year in 2018. [Note: Read the story about her recent Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year award here.]

Capt. Parra-Quinlan poses in the cockpit of a plane

Capt. Parra-Quinlan says career exploration is a big part of her teaching.

Tell us about your career outside of Civil Air Patrol. Why did you choose this career in teaching?

I have been an educator for 28 years. I taught at the elementary level for 12 years before making the switch to junior high. I currently teach STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) to 7th and 8th grade students at Kino Junior High School. My courses include engineering, robotics, flight and space and a medical detectives class. I also run a summer program called Aerospace Academy for my district, Mesa Public Schools. It is a two-week program for 6th and 7th graders to study flight and space in depth. We go on field trips, have guest speakers in, and participate in hands-on activities related to aeronautics.

I chose teaching because I enjoy helping people. I started out in elementary education as a teacher of students whose first language is not English. I still work with second language learners. I find it very rewarding to help students be successful in school and in life. Career exploration is a big part of my teaching. I try to expose my students to as many career possibilities as I can.

What is your teaching philosophy?
My teaching philosophy is that we need to create lifelong learners. It is vital for students to understand that they have many opportunities and choices about their future. I enjoy helping students explore new content and watching them achieve success at school. 

Congratulations on your recent Teacher of the Year Award. The news story about the award mentioned you advocate for STEM education for the inclusion of students of color and girls. Please tell us why this is important to you.

STEM is the fastest growing career area, according to the Pew Research Center and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unfortunately, women and people of color are grossly underrepresented in STEM fields. Students need exposure to STEM education. Schools with high minority populations typically do not have STEM courses available to students. I started the STEM program at my school to help level the playing field, to create some equity for my students. I seek out role models for my students so that they can see people like themselves in STEM careers. We need to make sure girls know that there are not "male jobs" and "female jobs" in STEM. They can dream of being whatever they want without being concerned about gender. 

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

I work in AE because it is my passion. I am a self-proclaimed Space Nerd. Many of my cadets want to become aerospace professionals. I like sharing my knowledge and helping them reach their goals.

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

I love the STEM kits CAP offers. I use them both with my students and my squadron cadets. The lesson resources make it easy to use the kits in either school or the cadet program. I have used several, including rockets, Snap Circuits, Cross Country Navigation, and Flight Simulators. As Assistant Director of Aerospace Education for the Arizona Wing, I arrange many of the TOP Flights for our AEMs. It's so fun to get teachers up in the air to experience flight in our CAP aircraft. One of my favorite TOP flight pilots, Maj. Kevin Smith, is a great host. He explains the workings of the aircraft and navigation to the teachers. They all respond with positive comments about their experience. The resources available for download are a valuable resource for me. I use the AEX and Aerospace Dimensions books in my classroom. I love how there are resources for all grade levels. 
What is the best advice you have for a new AE Officer working with cadets?

I would suggest to new AEOs to look at the materials that are available in eServices. There is a great variety of downloadable content to choose from. Get a STEM kit! Choose a subject you like. That will make it easier to get started.

Do you have any suggestions for how to conduct outreach in schools (working with students and recruiting AEMs)? 

One of the things I did as Assistant Director of Aerospace for the Wing was to reach out to the AEMs in our state. You could do what I did and figure out which squadrons were closest to each AEM. Then have the AEO of the squadron reach out to them. They could offer to have a guest speaker come out. They could ask if they have done a TOP flight and arrange it if not. Find the Science or STEM specialist in the local school districts. Ask if you could present the AEM program at their next teacher meeting. Email AEMs who are up for renewal and remind them. There is no cost, but they have to recommit. Let them know that and remind them about the free resources (teachers LOVE free stuff).

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

We worked on the rocketry badge as a squadron. The cadets put together rockets, and we had a Saturday morning launch event. The cadets who came out got to launch a variety of rockets, including two stage and water bottle rockets. It was fun watching them launch successfully. They were quite proud when they earned the badge. During the rocketry unit, we celebrated the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. We watched the Apollo 11 documentary and had a Kahoot! competition against the senior members for space-related prizes, ate moon pies, and learned a bunch about the Saturn V rocket.

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

Try to get your cadets involved in the planning and teaching of AE lessons. Their input helps with buy-in. Have several assistant AE officers and at least one cadet AE assistant. Many hands make light work. It can be a lot for one person to do and AE is 1/3 of the Civil Air Patrol philosophy; so work with others to make your squadron great!

Capt. Parra-Quinlan receives the AEX award Capt. Parra-Quinlan receives AEO of the Year plaque

Capt. Parra-Quinlan participates in the AEX Program and was named Arizona Wing AEO of the Year in 2018.


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