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Monday, May 10, 2021

From mission control to the classrooms at Pierce

The air of the control room is frantic as the minutes countdown to launch. What was once a light hum of chatter has evolved into a loud staccato of communication.

The goliath engines of the space orbiter Columbia ignite, canvassing the tarmac with sparks. As the shuttle rises from the plumes of white smoke, the tension dissipates.

It isn’t until Columbia reaches the outermost layer of the atmosphere and enters orbit that the team can relax.

For Olympia LePoint, an adjunct math professor at Pierce College, this was just another day at work.

“I actually got to relax and watch the Columbia launch,” LePoint chuckled. “It was amazing because I had never seen a shuttle launch up close before that. It took my breath away.”

Space and the “language of mathematics” lies at the core of LePoint.

At 21, LePoint began her career with The Boeing Company through whom she served as a rocket scientist for NASA. From 1998 to 2007 LePoint assisted in 28 shuttle launches and helped design and build new experimental rockets.

Despite the growing list of achievements LePoint remains humbled. Her primary source of inspiration and strength is her mother.

“My mother saw the importance of education,” LePoint said. “She wasn’t educated so she would always push me toward academic environments.”

With her father “out of the picture” LePoint’s mother was left to raise four daughters. Though she was unable to teach or mentor LePoint at home, LePoint’s mother encouraged her children to surround themselves with scholarly individuals.

“I made friends with my friends’ parents and they showed me how to do things like fill out a college application,” LePoint laughed.

As an alumna of the California State University of Northridge, LePoint can relate to the hectic and stressful lives of her students. Dividing herself between a full load of courses at CSUN and her work at Boeing LePoint has adapted to chaos.

“One of the things I still need to learn is to sit still,” LePoint said. “It’s hard as a scientist because you want to have control.”

More so than the unpredictability of college life, LePoint is aware of the pressure students experience.

In her book Mathaphobia: How You Can Overcome Your Math Fears and Become a Rocket Scientist, LePoint explains that it is not that “people are poor with math.”

“A lot of people fall into a category I call ‘Samuel the Struggler,’” LePoint said. “They’re very brilliant but they need assistance with communicating their innovative thoughts with other people.”

LePoint encourages her students by using games and relating math to laughable real-world situations. Her tool of choice for putting students at ease is a warm smile.

“I have realized that when people smile, it shuts off the fear in their brain,” LePoint said. “So I look at people straight in their face and smile.”

This infectious energy and love of teaching has been noted among many of her students.

Sarieu Metzger, 45, is a nursing major at Pierce College. Though she struggled with the subject in previous classes, Metzger has become comfortable with math. She believes it is LePoint who has helped bring about this change.

“She [LePoint] is very thorough,” Metzger said. “She is determined and really brings purpose to the subject.”

This testament is seconded by LePoint’s colleagues as well.

Melody Rashidian, professor of math at Pierce College, attended classes at CSUN with LePoint. A native from Iran, Rashidian experienced difficulty connecting with her peers. This changed when she met LePoint.

“She is very friendly and personable,” Rashidian said. “We were in the same classes so we had study group together and understood what the other was going through.”

LePoint and Rashidian have maintained their friendship despite their opposite work schedules.

The women support each other in both the personal and professional aspects of each others lives.

“I was so proud of Olympia [LePoint] when her first book was released,” Rashidian said. “She is a very hard worker and is dedicated to helping people learn the skills for understanding mathematics.”

For LePoint, teaching is second nature. Despite a background in modern dance, LePoint pursued a career in teaching because she “absolutely loves teaching.”

“I was born to speak. I was born to teach. And I was born to entertain,” LePoint said. “And I love being entertaining as I teach.”

Using the communication abilities she learned as a student at Alexander Hamilton Music Academy, LePoint approaches each class with an open mind. By connecting with her students on a personal level, LePoint is able to push them to their fullest.

One of LePoint’s goals is to see that each of her students becomes fluent in “the language of patterns and communication that is mathematics.”

“I teach mathematics at a university level,” LePoint said. “The expectation that I have for my students is the same as the expectations from a university program.”

This eagerness to see her students rediscover math and “unlock the untapped potential of the human mind” traces back to LePoint’s days working for NASA.

LePoint had been holed up in a control room with a team of scientists and engineers from Boeing Company for 12 hours. It was another routine shuttle launch.

As the orbiter rocketed towards space LePoint realized something that would change her perspective and later bring her to teach at Pierce College.

“The brain and space are exactly identical,” LePoint said. “And when I helped launch things for NASA I realized that the brain also launches and it launches ideas.”

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