Kara Quinlan

Walking into her classroom, it’s clear Kara Quinlan loves her students, science, and Star Wars. “That’s the original crew up there,” Kara says as she motions to a poster of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo. “I’ve been a fan ever since I was little. The movie would start, ‘in a galaxy far, far away’ and I would think, how do we get there? What does warp speed feel like? What would it be like to be part of this great unknown?” It’s no surprise Kara’s curiosity led her to teaching physics at High Tech High Chula Vista, though it was another trip to the theater that cemented her love of space. “When I was in junior high this amazing movie came out called Apollo 13. I was captivated and wanted to be part of mission control.” Kara would get her chance sooner than she thought, when her eighth grade science teacher decided to engage the class in a “shuttle mission” school project. “We built a fake spaceship and did a simulated experiment where I got to be the class’ mechanical engineer. From then on, I was bit with the space bug.” Kara went on to attend Colorado State University, where she began studying mechanical engineering before making a big career change. “I started tutoring students at the local high school in math, physics, and engineering, and then I fell in love with education. I was sold on it.” Now, Kara has been at High Tech High for eight years, but teaching for 13. While she’s taught eighth grade and upperclassmen at other schools, she thinks she’s found her niche with the freshmen. “Ninth graders are my people. They are super easily excited and you can set the foundation. I like to say that I ‘corrupt’ them with science and engineering right at the beginning, and sort of help change that trajectory.” It’s been her experience that many students come into science with negative, preconceived notions, and she believes that has a lot to do with a lack of exposure. “Where our students are coming from, they don’t always have science in elementary school; and if middle school is the first time they have science then it’s really, really difficult. I think it’s intimidating, it’s daughening...but I get the privilege to be the first one to excite them about doing stuff.” And what’s more exciting than exploring outer space? At least, that’s what Kara thought as she brainstormed ways to incorporate space into her curriculum. “Insert 20 years since my 8th grade science class and I never forgot that love of space. I’ve been trying to find ways to replicate that excitement in my students.” The opportunity to build enthusiasm for the cosmos came in the form of a general inquiry email from an organization she’d never heard of called Quest for Space. “I thought, ‘Quest for Space–we’re questing for space, we’re going on a galactic adventure!’ My mind exploded. And that’s what started the partnership with Quest, clicking yes on an email.” After overcoming the obstacle of obtaining funding as a public charter school, Kara was blown away by the scope of Quest’s operation and the work it would allow her students to do. “Having a 14 or 15 year old realize their data was getting run by professionals and astronauts, and that ‘Google world’ in San Jose was looking at their lab reports made a huge difference for them. It fostered that genuine excitement and brought the real world to their front door here in Chula Vista.” Part of that real world simulation was the need for teamwork and dependence on each other in order to meet deadlines and get the hardware up and running. “It brought on a very real world situation where they realized they had to collaborate with each other. We joke that physics is a sport and that no one sits on the bench–everyone has to be in the game. Real science you can’t just do by yourself; you need a team.” That team spirit carried them through months of trial, error, and eventual success, as students watched their experiment running in space aboard the ISS. “For them to see the school logo that they coded and that they figured out how to program, to see their names loop through, they were so excited–that made it all worth it. We must have watched that video close to a hundred times!” While there were many unplanned ups and downs in the lead up to launch, the most unexpected twist came after the project had been successfully completed. “The surprise that I wasn’t expecting was to have NASA invite two of our girls to speak on the panel at the R&D ISS Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. It blew our minds and our students minds. I tell them all the time that they are the ones who are going to go back to the moon and go to mars, and this empowered them to know that people do listen to them and that their work matters.” Speaking of going back, the Quest experience didn’t just get students thinking about going to space, but also inspired Kara herself to go back to school. “I actually started my master’s last year in aerospace science and just finished my first semester. It was intense, but what a better way to model for students being a space learner than to be a space learner yourself.” It’s a dream realized for Kara, who’s mission to space has come full circle.