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Lt. Col. Karen Cooper, NER DCS/AE, continues to be fascinated by STEM throughout long CAP career

Posted on May 17, 2022 at 12:04 PM by Virginia Smith

Lt. Col. Karen Cooper discusses AE at the CAP national conference with two members

Lt. Col. Karen Cooper has been a member of CAP since 1971 and has always been fascinated by AE/STEM.

May 15, 2022

Meet Lt. Col Karen Cooper, Northeast Region Deputy Chief of Staff/Aerospace Education, among many other duties. She joined CAP as a cadet in Rhode Island in 1971 and is a 50-year CAP member. She was immediately fascinated by the Aerospace Education aspect of the Cadet Program. As DCS/AE, one of her responsibilities is training AEOs to get their Technician Rating in AE. "The comments I get after the training is complete, coupled with the appreciation from people who achieve that rating because of something I did, is a great feeling," she says. In addition to multiple duties in her region and wing (Rhode Island), she also serves on the National AE Volunteer Staff in a number of roles, including AE assistant manager, and is involved in the areas of AE safety and AE professional development. She has written numerous safety briefings for AE (available on the AE website) and is the developer of the "AE Safety Check" feature in each AE Newsletter. She has recently retired from a safety-focused career. "For over 41 years, I was a Systems Engineer specializing in System Safety for the United States Navy as a civilian before retiring," she says, "and for a portion of that time, I was a supervisor of the safety group." She served as a member of teams who were writing or updating Joint Services safety standards that are still in use. She enjoys inspiring youth in aerospace/STEM subjects because she wants them to have as much fun as she always did with AE/STEM topics. "A few years ago, I suddenly realized that I am STEM. Between my college degrees, my profession, my interests and my hobbies, I have actively been part of all four letters in STEM." We asked her some questions about her CAP career, and her answers follow. 

You are involved in several areas with CAP. Please tell us about some of your duty positions.

I am currently a member of the Northeast Region as their Deputy Chief of Staff/Aerospace Education. My duty positions include

  • National Headquarters Aerospace Education Assistant Manager (volunteer). (Included in these duties are Aerospace Education Safety and performing data analysis and assessment for Aerospace Education.)

  • National Headquarters AE Professional Development Team Chair

  • Northeast Region Deputy Chief of Staff/Aerospace Education

  • Northeast Region Testing Officer

  • Northeast Region Spaatz Proctor (I’ve administered the Spaatz Exam in three wings so far)

  • Rhode Island Wing Director of Cadet Programs

  • Rhode Island Wing Assistant Safety Officer

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

I joined CAP as a cadet in 1971 in Rhode Island. A local squadron was holding a recruiting drive out at the local airport, and I loved being in the airplane they had there.  As they talked about Search and Rescue,

EArly in her career, Lt. Col. Cooper speaks to fellow members.

I could picture myself participating. It was soon afterward that I learned about the Cadet Program. Aerospace was not a primary focus of my squadron, but I was fascinated by it as part of the cadet achievement packages. I remember that there used to be one specifically about navigation. I received my books one afternoon and passed the exam that night.

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

Last October, I became a 50-year member of CAP. No one’s CAP career path is a straight line, and that includes mine. Somewhat recently, I was the DCS/Aerospace at the region level, and I loved that job. But then, when a newly appointed commander offered me Chief of Staff (another job I had enjoyed in the past), I took it. I missed the DCS/AE position, but I couldn’t go back to the DCS/AE position because it had already been filled. So, I went back to the Wing, became the Wing Director of Aerospace Education and worked my way back up to DCS. I hope to be here a long time.

My path as part of the National Headquarters AE team has been a little more straightforward, but I still bounced around a little. I originally did some numerical analysis and assessment for AE (a job I still have). Then a need arose for Safety Analysis in support of AE (another job I still have). When they asked if I would be the AE Assistant Manager, I, of course, accepted.

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

I love it when the cadets come back to visit and talk about their CAP experience and how it influences them today.  More than once, it includes the impact that the seniors had on their lives. One gentleman in particular comes to mind because, as he put it, he was headed for a dark place. He credits me as one of the people who put him back on the right path. Once the cadet leaves for college or another state, you rarely hear from them. I love it when I do.

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

I have received a number of awards over the 50 years I have been a member, including two Exceptional Service Awards. I appreciate every one of them, but I do this because of a love of AE, not for the awards. That’s probably why they are usually a pleasant surprise to me. For three separate years in the late 1990s, my wing was awarded a National AE award because of my work. My Wing Commander wanted me to accept them. Instead, I asked my wing commander to accept them on behalf of the wing. I still have them.

Tell us about your career outside of Civil Air Patrol.

For over 41 years, I was a Systems Engineer specializing in System Safety for the United States Navy as a civilian before retiring, and for a portion of that time, I was a supervisor of the safety group. During those years, I also served on safety review boards that were chartered by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) as well as their Joint Services equivalents. I also served as a member of the teams that were writing or updating Joint Services safety standards that are still in use. I have been published twice in a peer-reviewed safety journal.

Tell us about how you came to create the Safety briefings on the AE website and how you have promoted AE Safety in the National  CAP AE Newsletter.

Several years ago, National HQ/AE asked for a volunteer from those of us who were supporting AE to investigate and report on a safety issue. Since I worked in safety professionally, I volunteered. That grew into writing safety briefings for units to use (available on the CAP website), as well as writing the safety article in the AE Newsletter. National/AE cares very much about safety, and I am happy to provide the expertise.

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

I have always enjoyed AE, especially the STEM part, even before it got its name. A few years ago, I suddenly realized that I am STEM. Between my college degrees, my profession, my interests, and my hobbies, I have actively been part of all four letters in STEM. As for why I encourage youth in AE, I want them to have as much fun as I do.  

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

Always remember that you are never alone. In addition to your fellow senior members in your unit, you can always reach out to your Group AEO or your Wing DAE for help and assistance. You can also talk to AEOs in other squadrons in your wing and share information, guest speakers, activities, etc. CAP is very good about supporting each other. I get calls from friends I have made over the years, and I’m always happy to talk to them and provide help.

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

My best suggestion is to work with the local Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). You will find them to be an organized, dedicated group who only wants the best for their children and all of the students in their school. It is through them that you can reach multiple teachers, and through the teachers, you can reach the students.

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

When I first became a senior member, AE was more of a book-learning experience through the cadet achievement packages. However, when I became an instructor for the first time at an encampment – I brought the “hands-on experience,” mostly because it is what I like. The cadets were so excited and several came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed doing AE rather than reading AE. Enthusiasm is infectious.

AE is not limited to the cadets. I love working with the seniors, too. One of the things that I do as the DCS/AE is to provide training, in groups, so that senior members can achieve their Technician Rating in AE. The comments I get after the training is complete, coupled with the appreciation from people who achieve that rating because of something I did, is a great feeling.

Is there anything else that we didn’t ask that you’d like to add for this spotlight on an AE Officer? We want to tell your story.

I am married to a long-time CAP member, Col. Bryan Cooper, who is just as involved as I am, although we both pursue what interests us individually. That has created our “volunteer-by-marriage” scenario since we do support each other’s interests. He frequently gets involved in my AE activities, and it is fun working together.

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