Student Achievement

Golf Pro Phil Mickelson Aiming to Boost U.S. STEM Achievement

By Bryan Toporek — July 26, 2012 3 min read
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Professional golfer Phil Mickelson, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame earlier this year, says that he uses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge “every day” in his golf career.

I spoke with Mickelson by phone earlier today, who is up in New York this week for the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, a week-long program for 200 3rd through 5th grade teachers to hone their math and science skills.

Phil and his wife, Amy, partnered up with ExxonMobil in 2005 to found the academy, along with the National Science Teachers Association and Math Solutions. Now in its eighth year, more than 3,400 teachers have gone through the academy, reaching over 175,000 students, according to data from Heil & Associates.

After being nominated online, teachers travel to the academy to learn “new, catchy ways to get their kids excited” about math and science, Mickelson said.

“About 93 percent of the teachers don’t have science accreditation,” Mickelson said, “so they end up not feeling confident in their skills, and it conveys over to their students. They don’t teach it with the same type of passion as some of the other subjects.”

At Mickelson’s academy, teachers learn attention-grabbing lessons about action and reaction, gravity, friction, and Newton’s laws of motion—all traditional elements of a late elementary school curriculum—to inspire students in math and science. The academy targets the 3rd through 5th grade years because that’s when students traditionally lose interest in STEM subjects, according to Mickelson.

"[STEM subjects] need to be cool,” Mickelson said. “Having girls in elementary school act as though it’s not cool to know math, not to know science; that has got to change. Because it is cool to know science. It is cool to be competent in math. It’s that stigma that has to be removed that will hopefully help females enter the fields as much as males.”

Mickelson says STEM achievement all “starts with the students being interested in science and in math.” When children are deciding upon which summer camp to attend and choose a science camp, Mickelson believes that’s a “direct reflection of how interesting their science teacher makes the subject.” (And yes, his three kids all choose to be involved with science camp, he says.)

“It’s one of the things—science breakthroughs, medicinal breakthroughs, technological breakthroughs—one of the things that made our country great, but we’ve fallen behind,” Mickelson said. “We’re 25th among 34 countries in science. We’re in jeopardy of losing our leadership status and our greatness as a country unless we can get kids re-inspired in these fields.”

So, how has Mickelson’s own STEM knowledge helped him become a Hall-of-Fame golfer? Believe it or not, he says his knowledge of mathematics and statistics helps him with his putting game.

“Putting has an exponential falloff as you go away from the hole,” he explained. “I’ll make 100 percent of my shots from three feet away from the hole, 90 percent from four feet, 70 percent from five feet, 63 percent from six feet. Every foot away from the hole is critical.”

On the other hand, once Mickelson gets 30-35 feet away from the hole, a foot or two makes little difference. “The percentage of putts made from that far away are less than 1 percent,” he said. This bit of knowledge inspires him to spend most of his practice time within 150 feet of the hole, aiming to land his approach shots within a 12-15 foot radius from the hole.

For all the budding young golfers out there, Mickelson makes it sound like a background of STEM knowledge will only help your athletic careers.

And if you can’t continue your athletic ambitions through the professional level? A STEM learning base isn’t a bad backup plan.

Photo: Phil Mickelson leads a math and science quiz bowl with attendees at the 2012 Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy on July 26. (Rick Gilbert/Feature Photo Service for Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.