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September 01, 2003 1 min read
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The golf courses at the Christian Academy of Louisville in Kentucky may be miniature, but there’s nothing small about what students learned while building them this past fall.

Sixth grade science teacher Nikki Votaw ramps up physics with student-built miniature golf courses.
—Photograph by Stuart Bowman

Seeking a way to teach Newtonian physics that would allow her 6th graders “to really experience it and see how it could apply to everyday life,” science teacher Nikki Votaw decided to have the students construct two collapsible, 18- hole miniature golf courses that could be set up in the school gym. After dividing the kids into groups of three and four, she announced the rules: Each group would design and build one hole for their course. Holes would have smooth surfaces and not exceed a maximum dimension of 3 meters by 2 meters. Each would contain two simple machines, such as pulleys, levers, or ramps, and have walls that act as bumpers for the golf balls. And, perhaps most challenging, the students would have to explain how one or more of Newton’s three laws of motion apply to their designs.

Eleven-year-old Jason Landis and his group constructed a ramp by wrapping carpeting around a plank of wood and then balancing the plank at an angle. The ramp was steep, but players could still send their balls up the incline with a sufficient nudge. Several months after the project, the student still remembers why. “According to Newton’s third law of motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” he explains. The golf ball and the carpet exerted equal forces on one another, keeping the ball in place, but “if someone hit the ball hard enough, it would make it.”

When the courses were complete, they boasted multiple ramps, a windmill, and even a water obstacle (a bowl containing live goldfish). The class assigned each hole a par based on its level of difficulty, created scorecards, and then invited parents and students to play. Although no one found the courses easy, they were a hit. For Votaw, a highlight was hearing her students use words like momentum, inertia, and gravity to describe the principles behind their designs. “As I walked around and listened to the groups talk, I heard them use the terminology, and it was exciting,” she says. “You always want students to feel confident that they understand the terms.”

—Lashell Stratton


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