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Taking Physics onto the Putting Green

Champion golfer Tiger Woods is a physics lesson in action, and Sandra Harpole wants to prove it. Harpole, a physics professor at Mississippi State University, hopes that someday, just like Woods, one of her students will win a championship of their own - maybe with a little help from physics. Harpole runs a summer program for 6th to 8th graders called "Science on the Green," that teaches kids about golf, as well as physics, math and engineering.

Harpole received funding for the program from the United States Golf Association. She says "Science on the Green" gives students, who might otherwise not think of golf as a sport or as a science career, a new perspective. "Many students are totally unaware of the many opportunities in science, mathematics, engineering and technology that exist. They do not picture women and minorities as scientists or engineers or think of science and engineering careers in industries such as golf."

The program runs for two weeks during the summer, with follow-up sessions throughout the school year. "Students spend each morning learning how to play golf, about golf course design and management, and golf etiquette," Harpole says. But these students are teeing up more than golf balls. Each afternoon the students have classes and laboratory experiences that incorporate science and mathematics. For one lab, the students visited Taylor Made Adidas' manufacturing plant to learn how science and engineering are involved in design and testing of golf equipment.

Students determined the coefficient of restitution of the golf balls (which influences how fast the ball will go when hit by a club) and tried hitting balls with and without dimples, showing them the result of good golf ball engineering (dimples on a golf ball create controlled turbulence as the ball flies, reducing the amount of drag on the ball-allowing it to go further). Harpole says, "the students were just amazed at the difference the dimples made."

"They all want to come back next year," says Harpole. Still, she points out that just knowing about the science of the game may not make anyone a better player. "No matter how well you understand the physics," she says, " you still have to practice."

-Inside Science news team

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