Building Better Bogeys: Crafting the Perfect Mix of Physics + Play

March 28, 2014

Explo's Andy Smith pulls back the curtain and shows us how Explo can transform a great idea into a course that both meets our high curricular standards and becomes a learning experience our students will love.

Physics of Mini-Golf, a course we offer at Explo at Wellesley, is one of those courses that started from a very simple idea. Our curriculum team identified mini-golf as a great activity, but in order to dig deeper, we started asking some fundamental questions about it. Should this be a business class where we build, market, and sell mini-golf designs? Or, should this course focus on the economics of running a profitable mini-golf business? Or, should this be a design course where students are evaluating existing mini-golf courses in order to design their own great one? So we tossed around these and many other questions around what to do with this cool idea, and pretty soon, we had a breakthrough:

Our team realized that examining the physics of mini-golf was really the thing that was going to allow us to examine mini-golf on its most basic level. Essentially: when you hit the ball, where does it go and why?

As we began developing the curriculum, which centered around a series of physics-based challenges (not unlike some popular physics-based apps like Angry Birds or World of Goo), I worked with our Creative Director, Dave Hamilton, to imagine what we could build in our woodshop to make these challenges as out of the box as possible. Dave and I tossed SO MANY ideas around over the course of a month or so that we could have written several great curricula for this course.

In fact, an early iteration of the course was much more Rube Goldberg machine-inspired. In investigating that idea, I actually went to the Home Depot and bought a shopping cart full of random items, brought them back to the woodshop, and designed a mini-golf course that featured two counterbalanced ramps, a weighted Dr. Pepper can pulley system suspended from the ceiling, and several suspended-in-the-air golf ball tracks that led to the final hole.

As awesome as the Rube Goldberg-inspired mini-golf course was, the curriculum team really wanted to focus in on the practical application of physics concepts, specifically in physics-based problem solving. So, we took some of what we learned from the first draft of the mini-golf course and added the "physics challenges" concept. I conceived of some really interesting challenges, like, "get your golf ball 24 inches off the ground without the use of a launching ramp," and, "your ball must reach a complete stop and then fall into the hole without hitting it again."

Meanwhile, Dave was busily designing and building hardware for a mini-golf course that would be interchangeable enough that it could be used to meet all these wacky challenges. We both really wanted students to have to meet these challenges using creativity, ingenuity, and physics. Said another way, there truly is not a "correct" answer for any of the mini-golf challenges.

The course was a hit! Students really enjoyed making their own golf courses, but even more so, they loved to grapple with the physics challenges we'd dreamed up in Norwood some six months earlier.

The next step in development was working with the summer instructor on all the development work we'd done in Norwood. The instructor participated in an extensive teacher-planning process, where she was able to bring a whole host of ideas to the table before the summer. Between the Curriculum Department, the Wellesley program, Dave, and the teacher, we landed on a completed set of summer lesson plans that were ready to be implemented once summer began.

The course was a hit! Students really enjoyed making their own golf courses, but even more so, they loved to grapple with the physics challenges we'd dreamed up in Norwood some six months earlier. As is the case for many of our courses, we actually left the summer with even more ideas about elements to add to the curricula; new mini-golf hardware, new physics challenges, even ideas for entirely new courses.

Overall, the success of Physics of Mini-Golf hinged on our ability to turn our big ideas into action. Sure, we could have picked up some green carpet at the craft store and some mini-golf clubs at the sporting goods store and let kids make plain old mini-golf courses, but that's certainly not a class I would want to take. Instead, we challenged ourselves to look at mini-golf in a light that few do, and then designed an Explo course that pushes our students to do the same.


This post was written by Andy Smith, Explo at Yale's Assistant Head of Programs, and proud owner of Kenneth, the wonder goldendoodle.

By Lisa Merlini

Tag: Exploration Programs, Exploring Education

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