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A young girl watches her putt at the EarthScapes mini golf course.

A young golfer watches her putt in midstream on Hole 3 at the EarthScapes mini-golf course. Golfers must putt across the thin, fast-moving current to the hole on the opposite bank.

Water golf: getting the stream into our consciousness

Getting the stream into our consciousness

By Deane Morrison

Published on July 2, 2004

Play a round on the Science Museum of Minnesota's (SMM) new mini golf course, and your ball won't just roll around on artificial turf--it'll take you on a tour of the whole continent via its own waterway. In the course, called EarthScapes, your ball represents a drop of water and the game is one big learning experience about what happens to water after it leaves the sky and shapes the Earth's surface.

For example, Hole 3 of the mini golf course--the hydraulic jump--features a swift ribbon of water that will sweep your ball into an unruly torrent if you don't putt hard enough and against the current. Lesson: Water acts in predictable ways on golf balls, sediment, and anything else.

Hole 8's fairway models the Mississippi river bottom, complete with all sorts of engineered structures to control the flow. Lesson: People have profoundly changed the natural river.

"I hope that someday someone will look down from an airplane and say, 'Ha! There's a braided stream. I saw that in mini golf,'" says U geology and geophysics professor Chris Paola.

Large interactive exhibits are interspersed with the "golf stream" course. People can play in the tangled channels of sand and water in the braided stream exhibit, watch what happens when they remove a dam from a model river, or create an underwater landslide. "Of all the common games, golf is the only one that depends entirely on terrain," says U geology and geophysics professor Chris Paola. "I hope that someday someone will look down from an airplane and say, 'Ha! There's a braided stream. I saw that in mini golf.'"

EarthScapes is one of several features in the museum's Big Back Yard, which opened June 26. The others include the Science House, a building that heats, cools, and powers itself with electricity created from sunlight; the Prairie Maze, where paths wind through plantings of native prairie plants; and a turtle effigy medicinal plant garden.

A synergy of expertise between the University of Minnesota and SMM made the Big Back Yard possible, and SMM's Patrick Hamilton, director of environmental and Earth-systems sciences, spearheaded the project.

One demonstration in Science House builds on years of work by Michael Sadowsky, a new Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the department of soil, water and climate, and Lawrence Wackett, professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics. Sadowsky and Wackett designed a display to show how the bacteria Arthrobacter can degrade the herbicide ametryn. Visitors add Arthrobacter to water containing ametryn; as the bacteria break down the herbicide, a yellow hue appears. If they add other types of bacteria, the demonstration won't work. The versatile Arthrobacter also eats atrazine, another widely used herbicide, and is the subject of intense study.

The 17,000-square-foot Prairie Maze--which is just sprouting now--will showcase the splendid variety of plants native to the northern prairie. It is rooted in the work of David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology, and colleagues Steve Polasky, professor of applied economics and ecology, evolution and behavior; Donald Wyse, professor of agronomy and plant genetics; and Patrick Hamilton.

"It is going to highlight how diverse ecosystems can both produce more biomass for renewable energy and remove more carbon dioxide from the air," says Tilman. "Pat [Hamilton] really deserves a lot of credit for implementing this project."

Every year, dead plants from the maze will be clipped and burned in a nearby St. Paul power plant, releasing carbon dioxide. When next year's maze grows up, the plants will absorb the released carbon dioxide, providing energy with no net impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

The University of Minnesota provided funding for the Big Back Yard through its Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. The University-museum partnership is also supported by the Science Museum, various governmental units, private donors, and corporations. EarthScapes is a project of the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, comprised of earth scientists and engineers at the U of M and SMM.

Click here for more on the Big Back Yard.

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