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Rolling Fun Into Physics

Kids love amusement parks, and they especially love one aspect of these fanciful places above all others — the twists, turns and death-defying loops of the mighty roller coaster. Given the chance, it’s likely that almost any child would love the chance to actually build one of their own.

Susan Sears of Port Jefferson runs an ongoing series of science classes aimed at stimulating the growing minds of children. Recently, she was holding one of them at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library on Roller Coaster design, which she described as “a physics lesson disguised as fun.”

“We talk a little bit about physics, why you have to have the highest point and then things will go down, the laws of motion...about ten minutes of that is enough for them, and then we get down to building the roller coasters, which is what they really want to do,” she said. “The challenge is to build it with at least one loop-de-loop and one hill in it. I tell them that they are designing for an amusement park, and their boss is coming in 30 minutes and he wants to see a, that’s their challenge.”

Sears is an accredited teacher, having a science degree and taught both science and math in her native England before coming over to the U.S. due to her husband’s job.

Here, she said, she raised their children and eventually started working in formal education at science museums and learning centers. However, she eventually needed something with a bit more flexibility to allow her the time to travel back to England on occasion to visit her parents.

“I decided to set out on my own and do my own programs,” she said. “I was working full-time for Brookhaven National Labs, and it was a nice job, but I wasn’t teaching as much as I would have like to do...I wanted to have more time to see my family back home.”

The materials used in today’s lesson certainly wouldn’t pass muster with any building code on a real roller coaster, but they certainly serve well enough for eager young children ready to learn and experiment with the laws of motion. Just take some pipe insulation, marbles (standing in for the roller coaster itself), electrical tape, toothpicks, straws, cardboard tubes and boxes, and chairs, throw in a dash of imagination and even the walls themselves, and before you knew it, the kids in Sears’ class had constructed all manner of exciting and inventive ways to get those marbles rolling from point A to point B.

Young Jeremy and his friends worked feverishly on their roller coaster; incorporating a chair as the base and using a generous amount of tape, they ran a length of pipe insulation, cut in half to form a track, down the chair and through an impressive loop-de-loop for their marble to travel through.

“The hard part is keeping the track steady...we’re having to use a lot of tape,” he said. “But this is a lot of fun, and it teaches you about how things work, thinks you might not think about otherwise.”

Another student, Emily, said that she really enjoyed the creativity and ingenuity she got to explore while in Sears’ class.

“This is hard, but fun,” she said. “My friends and I are going to make the best roller coaster, once we figure out the best way to support the track so it’s steady, which is hard because the pipe insulation is so soft. But figuring it out is part of the fun.”

Since starting her own series of children’s science programs, Sears has become in serious demand; she said that, during the summer season alone, she does an average of nearly 60 classes held throughout both Nassau and Suffolk counties; her business has been bolstered by the fact that New York State libraries currently have a science theme for their reading programs, she said.

“I have chemistry programs, electricity and electronics, a bubbles program...I teach pre-school, elementary, and high school programs. I run the whole gamut, and I have programs tailored for them all that are both educational and engaging,” she said. “I really enjoy it, as it gets me with kids teaching and having fun, and the students really seem to love this roller coaster program in particular...they really get into it. It’s a big challenge for them, and they love to build the roller coasters.”