AFA Arizona, Teachers of the Year Collaborate to Launch STEM Camp for Arizona Educators

April 30, 2024

AFA Arizona organized its first “Southwest Teacher Air Camp” weekend in March at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. The event was a collaboration between Arizona’s Tucson AFA Chapter 105, the Arizona State AFA, and three Arizona national-level AFA teachers of the year. The camp focused on STEM teachers who serve indigenous students and work in Title 1 schools across the Southwest.

AFA’s Arizona State president, Wally Saeger, teamed up with Mike Vargas (National TOY in 2019); Nancy “PQ” Parra-Quinlan (National TOY in 2022); and Ty White (runner-up National TOY in 2013) to provide speakers, educational activities, and aviation experiences for the almost 50 teacher attendees. Each of these outstanding AFA STEM ambassadors was able to provide lessons and best practices to help the attendees enhance their own aviation-related STEM education programs. 

Working with Davis-Monthan AFB was key in making this Air/STEM camp an exceptional experience for the teachers. The base, part of Air Combat Command (ACC), is home to the 355th Wing which is responsible for training and deploying A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots.

Davis-Monthan hosted the camp attendees and for the USAF annual Heritage Flight Training and Certification Course. This course is conducted to enable historic aircraft like the P-38, P-51, F-86, and F-5 to fly in formation with modern Air Force demonstration aircraft: the A-10, F-16, F-22, and F-35. The sound of historic and current air power throughout the two-day camp set the stage for a powerful and inspirational experience for the teachers, to include Sunday’s grand finale Heritage Flight air show.

Saturday’s lift-off day consisted of presentations from STEM professionals who gave local educators inspiration to bring back to their classrooms:

  • Kate Kogge, STEM Education Specialist contracted to the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), conducted a workshop on building cardboard automatons (mechanical devices that seem to operate on their own) and on interdisciplinary project design and creative problem-solving using the engineering design process.
  • Jamie Vought, a DOD STEM specialist, provided a presentation on teacher resources available through various Air Force STEM activities. 
  • Jehna Burns, a Workforce Strategic Specialist from Boeing, gave a presentation on the future of the aerospace industry and potential STEM-based careers in the industry. 

Vargas, Parra-Quinlan, and White closed out the first day by guiding the elementary grade teachers in constructing and launching indoor tissue paper hot air balloons while the secondary grade teachers were constructing tetrahedral kites using straws, string, and tissue paper which were flown outdoors.

AFA Chapter 105 hosted a dinner where the teachers enjoyed networking and hearing from the guest speaker, Air Force Office of Scientific Research Director, Dr. Kim Jacoby.

The second day presented unique opportunities for the attendees, beginning with a special invitation to tour the Davis-Monthan flight line prior to the training air show. Being able to get up close to and learn about all the participating aircraft, as well as meet and talk to available ground crews and demonstration pilots, was exciting for the teachers, many who had never been on a military installation.

The teachers were then guests in the base commander’s VIP tent to watch formation flights. They saw the F-16 flying in formation with two P-51s followed by the F-35 doing a solo demonstration and formation flying with two P-51s. As the Heritage flight show continued, the teachers observed while being transported to other parts of the base. 

The next stop was STARBASE, a DOD-sponsored STEM education program conducted on the base for area fifth graders. The STARBASE teachers conducted an introduction to the theory and construction of bottle rockets which teachers later were able to launch outdoors.

As an added treat, the teachers ate lunch with Airmen assigned to Davis-Monthan, ranging in rank from A1C to colonel. The Airmen volunteers talked to the teachers about their Air Force careers and answered questions about how students can pursue those career pathways.

The day ended with a series of presentations:

  • Susan Mallett from Civil Air Patrol’s national headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., shared information about CAP’s free aerospace/STEM education programs and resources for teachers who become a CAP Aerospace Education Member.
  • The local CAP Composite Squadron 334 commander, Lt. Col. Mark Malan, who also works at Davis-Monthan, provided an overview of the varied youth opportunities for students in the CAP cadet program. CAP provided a Cross-Country Navigation STEM Kit for each teacher to take and use in their classroom.
  • Parra-Quinlan used the navigation charts from the kits to demonstrate how to find features like airports and cities to get a feel for how to use the charts in the classroom. 
  • Chief Master Sergeant Karmann-Monique Pogue, the Senior Enlisted Leader for Space Training and Readiness Command (STARCOM), joined the group via Zoom to talk about her role as a senior leaderof STARCOM and the vital role that STARCOM plays in preparing members of the U.S. Space Force to prevail in competition and conflict through innovative education, training, doctrine, and test activities. Pogue is a native of Tucson, which brought an immediate connection to the teachers.
  • Saeger provided an overview of how AFA supports STEM and where on the AFA website to find additional information for STEM-related programs, such as the AFA’s CyberPatriot, StellarXplorers, Teacher of the Year, and Teacher grant programs.

It was a fast-paced two days and was made possible with the outstanding support provided by the chapter members, the leadership and Airmen of Davis-Monthan AFB, and the myriad presenters from Arizona organizations and the DOD—all brought together by a dedicated team of AFA Teachers of the Year and the local AFA Chapter and State leaders.

It is hoped that the “Southwest Teacher Air Camp” will continue for years to come, and serve as an inspiration for more collaborative aviation-related STEM programs using the connections of state and national TOYs and the support of the local and state AFA.