Nancy Parra-Quinlan, Arizona’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, is striving to make an impact on her students by teaching them important career-based skills through STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) related courses.
At Kino Junior High School in Mesa where Parra-Quinlan has taught for the last 15 years, many students have never been introduced to these types of jobs. But, through her unique classes, students are now given the opportunity to learn about robotics, 3D modeling software, flight and space, as well as forensic science through a medical detectives class.
We caught up with Parra-Quinlan about all the ways she is working to not only leave her mark on her students, but how she plans to continue collaborating with other educators to expand the STEM field for all students.
Explain a little bit about the STEM/CTE classes you teach. What type of unique projects do you get to do with your students? We started the STEM program at Kino under the direction of my former principal Susan O’Brien. We wanted to create something that would give our students new opportunities to explore topics and careers they otherwise would not encounter. I took summer classes through Project Lead the Way to learn the base curriculum that we have expanded on over the years. I teach 4 different classes:
• Intro to Engineering: Automation & Robotics- This is an entry level class where students learn the basics of building and programming robots. They learn how to use motors and sensors to move the robot and complete tasks.
• Intro to Engineering: Design & Modeling- This is also an entry level class where students learn the basics of technical drawing, 3D software, and the design process. Projects that start out as a solution to a problem are sketched, built on CAD software and 3D printed.
• Flight and Space- Students must pass one of the entry level classes to take Flight & Space. We learn about the principles of flight, make hot air balloons, build and test airfoils. We also build model rockets and launch them on the football field.
• Medical Detectives- Students must pass one of the entry level classes to take this class as well. We study diseases, both food borne and genetic. We extract our own DNA after learning about cells. We study the parts of the brain and dissect sheep brains to do comparative anatomy. We also do a forensics unit where we study time of death, fingerprinting, crime scene observation and evidence collecting, ballistics, and blood spatter. I make mock crime scenes in the classroom and digitally for the students to solve. We dust for fingerprints on our campus to learn how CSI technicians do their jobs.
Why is STEM and CTE so important for this generation of students to learn and specifically for the population of students at Kino? STEM is the fastest growing area of employment in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. My goal is to prepare students for a future career without restrictions on what jobs they can attain. Women and People of Color, like my students, are underrepresented in STEM careers. They do not have an abundance of role models, so they do not realize what options they have for jobs. When they see women and minorities in STEM roles, they realize they can achieve that same success. My students are given the opportunity to experience hands-on STEM learning to help level the playing field. If they discover STEM subject areas that interest them while at the junior high level, they can be better prepared for high school and choose courses that help them achieve their goals, whether it is in college, the military, or a trade school.
What has been your proudest moment as an educator? I am most proud of when my students come back to tell me that they have chosen a STEM career path and are following their dreams. I have a student who took my classes and participated on our competition robotics team who is now an engineering student at Embry-Riddle in Prescott. Other students are getting pilot’s licenses and taking dual credit classes in high school. These students are why I do what I do.
What does this award mean to you? How do you plan to use this experience to enhance your teaching practice? I am honored to be named the 2022 Arizona Teacher of the Year! Being recognized for the work I am doing keeps me going. Teaching is not the easiest thing to do and many are leaving the profession. This award validates my efforts to make a difference. I hope I can inspire others to create new opportunities for their students by offering STEM clubs and programs at their schools. This experience gives me the opportunity to collaborate with teachers across Arizona and across the United States as well. I am always looking for new ways to reach my students. The Teacher of the Year award has already opened doors for me to expand my knowledge as I connect with other professionals both in education and STEM professions.
What teacher or educator inspired you when you were younger? My seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Mary Spillane was my favorite teacher. She was smart, patient, and kind. She always answered my many questions and if she didn’t know the answer to a query, she would find out. I loved listening to her read aloud; she read with such inflection and used different voices for the characters. It instilled in me a love of reading.
What made you want to become a teacher? I always loved helping others. Teaching makes me feel like I am making a difference for my students. If I can help prepare them for a good future then I know I chose the right profession. I always wanted to be a teacher and even when I was discouraged by others from being an educator, I still had the desire to teach. Nothing is more rewarding than watching a child have an “ah ha” moment after working through a challenge.
What would you say to someone who is considering becoming a teacher but feels discouraged by the demands, pressures, and little pay that teachers face? Teaching can be an isolating profession. Surround yourself with people who know and understand this. Teachers often burn out and leave because they feel alone and unheard. Find others with whom you can collaborate, vent, laugh, and learn. When you are part of a team, it makes the job more worthwhile. You don’t have to sacrifice your own health and well-being. Ask for help when you need it. Remember what they tell you on the plane: secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.
What message do you hope to pass on to all of the students you teach and have taught? I hope my students know that I love them and have only ever wanted the best for them. Even though they may have felt I was strict or tough on them, it was so their lives would be better. My students should know that they can do anything they set their minds to. I believe in them and hope they feel prepared for the bright future that is theirs.
Anything else you’d like to add? I would like to ask your readers to take a moment nd reach out to a teacher that made a difference in their lives. Send a note, make a phone call, or write an email to tell that teacher (or teachers) how they positively affected them. It means so much to us to hear from former students about their experiences.