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Mini-golf construction project is a stroke of STEM brilliance

Byron Center — In her second hour STEM class, sixth-grader Jenna Vanderlaan carefully used hot glue on pieces of cardboard to make the house that crushed the Wicked Witch of the East.

“I got the idea from watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ for the first time,” Jenna explained as she glued the house onto her one-hole mini-golf course next to her Emerald City and yellow brick road path made of construction paper.

“It’s a lot of hot glue,” she said. “I think the whole thing is mostly hot glue.”

It is Nickels Intermediate STEM teacher Jessica Johnson’s second year leading sixth-graders in a miniature golf construction project to teach them about lines, angles and using their imaginations. 

“The students started with design sheets, where they had to draw the line of their marble path into the hole and include one angle in the path,” Johnson said. “The whole design process is about change and moving things around to create a final product that works.”

On the floor near Jenna’s desk, Alivia Nielsen used a cardboard cutter to get the right sized pieces for her garden themed mini-golf course, complete with origami fish, bird and butterflies. 

Avery Brooks and Tessa Wadsworth were inspired by the classic windmills in real life mini-golf courses for their designs.

“I started with the idea of a windmill and then it ended up turning into a barn with farm animals,” Avery said. “I learned it’s really hard to make pigs out of paper.”

Tessa said she had to correct her marble’s path a few times before she got it right. 

The entire class used only recycled materials to build the courses, some Johnson provided and others students found in their own homes or outside the classroom.

In the back of the classroom, Evan Steen was pondering whether to use another paper towel roll as a tube for his course. He decided to use paper and glue because “paper is easier to roll and move to get the right angle.”

“Designing the whole thing has been fun and built our courses from scratch,” he said. “I didn’t know where to start or what it was going to look like when it was finished.”

Like many students, Evan faced challenges with his project, like how to angle the tubes inside the cardboard box that his course sat on top of, so the marble could travel down tubes to the hole. 

And “I learned hot glue burns hurt.”

Johnson’s goal for this project was to encourage her students to “be creative and try new things.”

“I gave them the assignment, and then they had the freedom to make whatever they wanted,” Johnson said. “These sixth-graders got to play last year’s class’ courses as fifth-graders, so they were really excited to build them this year. They’re having a really good time with it and learning along the way.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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