Airman for Life

Oct. 1, 2019

AFA Teacher of the Year Michael Vargas (center) and his “Near Space Team” students from Pinnacle High School get an assist from NBA Phoenix Suns mascot “Go” before launching a weather balloon into the atmosphere. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Vargas


Michael Vargas, the Air Force Association’s 2019 National Teacher of the Year, stands out for his experience, vision, and commitment.

A ninth-grade physics teacher at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, Vargas is an innovator both within and outside the classroom. Inside, he’s an advocate for “physics first,” believing physics is a gateway to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Outside, he has successfully lobbied the Arizona state legislature to award scholarships to 150 physics and chemistry teachers, and more recently, extend that program with an additional $1.2 million in state funding.

AFA’s Teacher of the Year, presented by Rolls-Royce, recognizes teachers from across the country for their contributions to STEM education, which is critical to developing future leaders in aerospace.

An educator for 19 years, Vargas attended Northern Arizona University and enjoys opening up new ideas for students and watching them succeed. His “physics first” philosophy introduces students to launching rockets and weather balloons, providing firsthand exposure that brings the subject to life. Physics is the chief STEM pathway and the gateway class to all other STEM disciplines, Vargas says, being that physics is the science of everything, it teaches students to think critically about data.

Traditionally, physics follows biology and chemistry in most high school curricula. But by teaching it first, Vargas believes students get a clearer picture of the world, whether that’s the mechanics of flight or of simply moving an object.

Future generations must understand not only how to get off the ground, he says, but also how to break orbit. Training students to think and tackle problems head-on allows them to adapt, handle challenges, and overcome adversity.

Since 2013, Vargas and the Pinnacle H.S. Near Space Team have conducted weather-balloon missions. Each year, he invites freshman students to participate, drawing on grants provided by the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns and other local businesses. He has also invites local Civil Air Patrol members to teach students how to track locations using GPS in emergency rescue missions.

By involving the community and other STEM organizations in teaching his students, he’s been able to raise awareness about his programs.

Today’s students are training for careers that may not even have been invented yet; they’ll need to be critical thinkers and able to multitask to keep up with the evolving technology.

School systems need more physics and upper-level STEM classes, according to Vargas, whose energy and enthusiasm is as great as his commitment to education. Teaching is about helping students achieve—and that’s what makes him proudest.

“I produce not only thinkers, but leaders.”