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Rollercoasters and Life's Lessons

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It was all about ups, downs, twists and turns. It could have been a lesson on life. Instead it was a lesson about roller coaster physics that captured the attention of a group of fourth graders from Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in southeast Washington, D.C. last week.

As one of their teachers, I -- along with my fellow teacher Ms. Whitseyjohnson -- was learning alongside them from a foremost scientist who found time to share her enthusiasm for science with a group of children eager to learn. Dr. Njema Frazier, a physicist with the National Nuclear Security Administration, is part of the USA Science and Engineering Festival's Nifty Fifty program, which sends top scientists to D.C.-area schools in advance of the Festival to ignite middle and high school students' passion for science and engineering.

The Festival, hosted by Lockheed Martin and taking place April 28 to 29 in D.C., is a free, family-friendly expo that allows kids and adults to participate in over 3,000 hands-on activities and see more than 150 live performances by science celebrities, explorers, best-selling authors, entrepreneurs and world-renowned experts.

On this particular day, Dr. Frazier -- who normally focuses on protecting the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile -- was busy applying her physics expertise in a way that captured our students' imaginations. She subtly worked in concepts like gravity, potential and kinetic energy, mass, velocity, conservation of energy, acceleration and friction as they made and tested their own roller coasters. The students were enthralled by the topic and Dr. Frazier's own enthusiasm for the subject.

Dr. Frazier -- who received her undergraduate degree in Physics from Carnegie Mellon and her doctorate in Theoretical Nuclear Physics from Michigan State University -- was selected as a Nifty Fifty participant for this very reason: her ability to translate tough concepts and make them fascinating to students. This skill is vitally important as the nation faces a severe shortage in U.S. students entering the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Dr. Frazier's own love for math and science started as a young child, and she told the students about her determination to pave the way for more African American women in science. This resonated with me too. Although I liked science as a youth, it was a time when girls were not encouraged to go into science as a profession, as they are now. Still, I had a dynamic elementary science teacher who instilled a life-long science interest in me and a desire to share this interest with the next generation.

President Obama gets this too, recently saying: "Reaffirming and strengthening America's role as the world's engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation is essential to meeting the challenges of this century." As I sat and watched my students laugh and learn as their homemade roller coasters zipped down a track, I know that these children will be up to the challenge. So perhaps, there was a life lesson in this roller coaster project after all.