May 24, 2006

Cornell students help build a mini-golf putting green as a learning tool for preschoolers at Ithaca's Sciencenter

Donna Stocke
Cornell engineering seniors Michael Stocke, left, and William Culley, who have been fans of miniature golf since childhood, at the preschoolers' putting green they built for the Sciencenter's space-themed miniature golf course.
 

With an eye on the ball on learning, the science-themed Galaxy Golf miniature golf course at the Sciencenter has a new mini-golf putting green for children ages 4 and under, with a little help from two Cornell students and a grant from the Cornell Public Service Center (CPSC).

Michael Stocke, an engineering senior who volunteers at the Sciencenter, a hands-on science museum in Ithaca for all age groups, was invited early last fall by museum staff members to help plan and build an addition to Galaxy Golf for preschoolers. After applying for and getting a Community Partnership Board grant for the project through CPSC last fall, Stocke invited his classmate William Culley to get involved as well. They two began working with other volunteers and members of the Sciencenter's exhibits team to design a prototype of a five-hole putting green. Stocke and Culley then built the actual green, completing it this May. The exhibit staff provided workspace and advice.

The octagonal mini-golf putting green they built resembles a standard miniature golf course hole, with bright green synthetic turf surrounding a live tree. However, the green itself features five separate challenges that encourage youngsters to experiment with the specially designed moveable wooden blocks and build structures that might make it easier to get a hole-in-one.

In addition, a sign with words and pictures shows how to build a ball run and how to play on the green. Special golf clubs and balls light and small enough for tiny hands are available for preschoolers, and there are benches on the side for parents to oversee activities.

One of the holes is surrounded by a raised area not much bigger than an anthill that Stocke and Culley hope will challenge pint-sized golfers to learn to control the motion of their golf balls. "The kids are creative and come up with new ways to play every time," added Stocke. During test runs with preschoolers and on the Sciencenter's Members Night April 28, "The kids were really smart," said Culley. "They made ball runs out of blocks that mounted the hill and delivered the ball right into the hole."

"Michael and Bill are dream volunteers," said Brian Gold, lead developer of Galaxy Golf. "From day one, they have embraced each opportunity with initiative and enthusiasm."

"We are very grateful to Michael and Bill for their efforts and the terrific end product," said Charlie Trautmann, executive director of the Sciencenter. "The mini-golf putting green they built engages the Sciencenter's youngest visitors in a meaningful way while they are outside having fun with their older siblings and parents. It offers them age-appropriate challenges and introduces them to an interactive environment that celebrates the wonders of science."

Stocke and Culley calculate they put in 600 hours combined -- three mornings a week -- during their 2006 spring semester purchasing supplies and building the putting green and its features. They fabricated most of them in Rhodes Hall's machine shop on campus and at the Sciencenter's shop.

The two built their first mini-golf course in the backyard of Stocke's Collegetown house several years ago. "It was very spontaneous and started out with one hole," Stocke said. "Within a week we had begun to re-landscape the yard, and over the next couple of years it was completely modified to a full 18-hole course."

"Now we are at the point of holding weekend tournaments," said Culley, who admitted he'd never actually won a miniature golf tournament and was mildly envious of Stocke, who has won many.

The real winners, however, will be the generations of Ithaca preschoolers who become interested in science at the Sciencenter while having fun learning to play golf at its Galaxy Golf mini-golf putting green. Stocke and Culley will get to see some of that when they return to campus to pursue Master of Engineering degrees next fall.

The Sciencenter is located at 601 First St. in Ithaca. Its 19-hole Galaxy Golf miniature golf course was built in 2004 with assistance from MBA students at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management as part of a Park Leadership Service Project. For information on the Sciencenter, call (607) 272-0600 or visit: http://www.sciencenter.org.