Planting the love of turf early

By Pamela Sherratt, Ohio State:

When I was 16, I embarked on a weeklong residential taster course at Myerscough College in England. The goal of the camp was to plant the seed that horticulture is a viable career. The week was spent doing hands-on STEM (science technology, engineering and math) activities like tractor driving, pruning, planting, and even welding. I loved it and knew that that I had found my people. I have recounted that experience to colleagues many times over the years and recently decided to do something about it. Thus, the Turfgrass Science STEM Camp at The Ohio State University was born!

Looking around to see what similar camps were available, I learned about First Green, who merged with Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) in 2018. First Green has been offering STEM camps on golf courses for 20 years. They offer free camps for students aged grades 5 and up and have impacted 15,000-plus students since they started. Their emphasis on “hands-on activities” as the central theme is crucial to the camps’ success, since research shows that learners retain only 5% of material presented through lecture, 30% by demonstration, but as much as a 75% retention rate by doing something.

In July, we held a weeklong day camp for 26 middle school students. We chose middle school age because they are old enough to understand the basics of STEM and they are able to focus for longer periods of time than elementary school kids. Still, the attention span of the average middle school student is 10 to 12 minutes, so we knew the key to success was going to be engagement. In addition, we wanted to plant the seed about careers in turfgrass while they were young, and we felt that high school students might have already set career goals. I may change my mind on that as my kids get to high school and I understand the demographic a bit more.

Planning a camp of this nature took time and effort. By far, the most important aspect is to have a team of young people (camp counselors) that are professional, have great organizing skills, and are comfortable engaging with middle school-aged students. Conversely, it’s important that the counselors can engage with the students without being over familiar. I was lucky to find counselors that matched the criteria and they helped with food donations, transportation, site visits, hands-on activities, parent communication tools, social media platforms, and student supervision.

Camp activities were as follows:

Students set up small experiments on Monday and gave 5-minute presentations on Friday. The experiments included: soil settlement testing, soil erosion control (thank you, Pinterest), ryegrass germination, and nitrogen and iron applications. They also performed light meter experiments.

Math was included wherever possible, such as measuring an irregular shape, measuring bases and height of pitcher’s mound, and calibrating fertilizer spreaders. The students really enjoyed being timed as they walked with the fertilizer spreader, competing to get the best time.

The golf course conservation and nature walk opened up the opportunity to talk about the role a turf manager plays in environmental management. The students saw birds, turtles, a frog, deer, monarch butterfly caterpillars and different plants. This visit tied in nicely with a climatologist who discussed the effects of climate change on growing plants in Ohio.

“Cool tools” is a term used by First Green and we used it too. Students got to sit on equipment and watch it being used. They used the Clegg impact hammer, shear vane, TDR, ball roll and ball bounce equipment, infrared gun, stimpmeter, firmness meter, macrometer, and mowing height prism. All of them would say that their favorite thing was flying the drone.

The students really enjoyed the hands-on activities: painting a logo at Mapfre Stadium, raking bunkers at Muirfield Village Golf Club, fixing a home plate area, and cutting a cup on a golf green.

One of the week’s highlights was making a putter (only $15 per putter kit). They used the putters they made for an outdoor putting competition and we gave trophies to the winners.

For fun, the students took part in a simulated putt-putt competition and enjoyed tie-dying their camp T-shirt. They toured Ohio Stadium and got to run down the tunnel like champions. I also learned quite quickly that we didn’t need to schedule every second of every day because the students needed downtime as much as we did. After the heavily scheduled first day I made sure they had at least 30-40 minutes each day to play soccer, or 4-square, or just lay on the grass and chat. It felt good to give them a little freedom.

At the end of the week, the students and their parents gave us some great feedback. Not surprisingly, they really enjoyed things they actually got to DO and they didn’t enjoy the things that meant sitting and listening for longer than 15 minutes. Even after all our thoughtful planning, we did still have some scenarios where the leader of the activity thought hands-on meant sit and listen.

Overall, it was fun, exhausting, noisy, engaging and very worthwhile. The goal was to introduce turfgrass science to 26 middle-schoolers and we accomplished that. And the key to getting the students to engage and have fun was to talk to them. It really was that simple.

Thank you to the Ohio Sports Turf Managers Association for supporting this camp with an outreach grant of $2,500.