National Teachers of the Year ‘Carry the Torch’ as AFA Education Ambassadors

February 29, 2024

AFA’s National Teacher of the Year program has grown significantly in the last decade thanks to the strategic sponsorship of Rolls-Royce and the amazing educators who act as AFA/Rolls-Royce Educator Ambassadors. Each national TOY has the opportunity to receive their award and move on, or carry the torch and use it to ignite the passions of other educators. Those who continue exemplary STEM education work throughout the nation and internationally are exceptional representatives of the Roll-Royce teacher recognition sponsorship.

The 2014 National Teacher of the Year, Kaci Heins, continues to carry that torch. As executive director of the international Limitless Space Institute, she helps “inspire and educate the next generation to travel beyond our solar system and support the research and development of enabling technologies.” This mission aligns well with AFA’s goal to inspire and educate the future aerospace/STEM workforce.

Heins has sustained her mission to include and promote AFA education in all her professional endeavors. She is a well-respected mentor and leader to teachers across the nation and beyond, fulfilling the LSI mission through innovative educational initiatives.

Three recent National AFA TOYs are a part of the highly competitive LSI International Educator program: Megan Tucker, 2021 National TOY from Virginia’s Hillsboro Charter Academy; Ashlie Blackstone-Smith, 2021 runner-up National TOY from Michigan’s Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Girls; and Mark Westlake, 2015 National TOY from Minnesota’s St. Thomas Academy. All four of these stellar educators attended and presented sessions at the recent international Space Exploration Educators Conference (SEEC) conducted at Space Center Houston.

These dynamic educators continue their dedicated connection to AFA while making exemplary contributions to national teacher and student education initiatives. Heins strongly supports AFA’s StellarXplorers program by initiating the hosting of STLX camps at Space Center Houston, where she was previously the Education Director.

Tucker continues to work with the Virginia AFA and has remained a member of AFA’s Education Council as a TOY program team member. Showcasing her mind for innovation, Tucker recently attended the  National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL) conference in Connecticut and earned her Amateur Radio Technician license, learning activities that can be applied in the classroom. 

Blackstone-Smith is the Michigan State AFA Vice President for Aerospace Education and works to recruit teachers for Michigan’s growing AE program. Michigan State AFA president, Doug “Odie” Slocum, coordinated a KC-135 refueling mission with the 2022 third place national TOY from Michigan, Colleen Cain. They shared this experience with students and other teachers. 

Westlake, the newest selectee for the LSI Educator program, joined Heins and the LSI team at SEEC for training and planning for his specific areas of contribution. He continues to stay connected with his local AFA Chapter and shares his passion of experimental vehicle programs with his students and other educators nationwide.

Each one of these educators continues to make great strides in conducting stimulating educator seminars and providing innovative educational opportunities for students. AFA is proud of the network of teachers the TOY program is building and plans more opportunities to connect chapter, state, and national TOYs in virtual programs to help inspire and educate students toward limitless future workforce opportunities.

Nominations for Chapter and State Teachers of the Year are open now through April 30. Learn more here.