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First Green Merges Golf with STEM Learning

After hosting his initial First Green field trip in 2013, Frank Tichenor, the longtime superintendent at Forest Hill Field Club in Bloomfield, N.J., exclaimed, ‘The field trip was one of the best days I’ve ever spent on the golf course.’

Such enthusiasm among superintendents – along with participating students, teachers and parents – for the nonprofit First Green Foundation has been expressed repeatedly since the innovative education-outreach program launched in 1997. And the organization’s momentum continues to grow throughout North America.

For the past two decades the golf industry has been tackling a major question: How do you get kids out to the golf course? One answer has been First Green, which during that time has introduced the game to over 16,000 students during its field trips.

STEM is the buzz in educational circles. The acronym – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – addresses the main components now being emphasized in schools. Each of these disciplines is routinely practiced by golf course superintendents, making them ideal First Green ‘teachers’ for science students in grades 5-12.

‘First Green takes advantage of what the superintendent already knows,’ said Dave Phipps, the Northwest Region Field Staff Representative of the GCSAA, 2012 recipient of the GCSAA President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship and a First Green board member. ‘The majority of superintendents across the country possess science degrees from two- and four-year universities. The principals of science, technology, engineering and math come very naturally. When it’s part of the superintendent’s everyday life, it’s simple for them to discuss with the kids.’

First Green (full disclosure: I’ve been its board President since 2012) opens new doors for superintendents, creating a platform to show students, educators and parents that their golf courses are vital to the health of the local community. ‘In a way, it encourages the superintendent to get ‘out of his box,’’ added Phipps. ‘This is a great way to help the superintendent become a community leader, one who is known as an expert in his field. First Green fulfills the public-outreach component of the Audubon Sanctuary Program, which recognizes golf courses as an environmentally-conscious facility. There isn’t a better advocacy program out there. There isn’t a community out there that frowns on this kind of outreach.’

The organization has been ‘spreading the word’ through webinars and appearances at many golf association levels, including the annual Golf Industry Show. The program, which has been featured on the GCSAA’s TurfNet TV as well as several national network affiliates, drew international attention in 2015 when the USGA selected First Green for a Public Service Announcement during its championships on the FOX Network. The 30-second PSA will also air throughout 2016 on FOX and its affiliated channels.

At this year’s Golf Industry Show in San Diego, 30 sixth-graders from Sunnyside Elementary visited Bonita Golf Club for a field trip. Also on hand were 18 superintendents from around the U.S. who were getting their first glimpse at First Green.

‘I thought the field trip was well-organized and executed,’ said Greg Cormier, CGCS and Director of Golf Course Operations for Nashawtuc Country Club in Concord, Mass. ‘It was very helpful to me to be able to observe a live field trip. I thought the labs and instructors were great. I left very excited to host a field trip at our club.’

‘[The field trip] gave the students a different perspective,’ observed Sunnyside teacher Robyn Higginson. ‘I asked the kids how many had ever held a golf club before. Many of them hadn’t played golf. The students were also able to practice real-world problems. The math and science connection made the experience relevant.’

After viewing 115 excited fifth-graders from Boone Elementary attend a field trip at San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park, and then participating in a four-hour seminar about the program in February 2015, Jon Lobenstine, Director of Agronomy for nine Montgomery County (Md.) golf courses, commented: ‘The First Green seminar I attended at this year’s Golf Industry Show gave me all the information I need to get started with this important outreach program. I am very excited to get out of the golf ‘bubble’ and begin telling our story to kids in the community!’

‘I have hosted many First Green field trips on our golf course since 2000 and each one is a new experience,’ said Steve Kealy, superintendent at Glendale Country Club in Bellevue, Wash. ‘The kids are always excited when they arrive as many of them have never set foot on a golf course before. They get to learn ‘hands-on’ science and math in a real-world setting and see how it applies to their everyday life.
‘It’s a great opportunity for superintendents to share their golf course with the local community and see the kids’ reactions to things that they deal with every day,’ added Kealy, who received the GCSAA President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship in 2005 and is First Greens Secretary/Treasurer. ‘It’s a lot of fun for the kids, their teachers, and the superintendent.’

‘Golf course superintendents love this program,’ said Paul Ramsdell, Executive Director of the Western Washington Golf Course Superintendents Association, which provides an annual grant to First Green. ‘As stewards of their own piece of the environment, it gives them a chance to share their tremendous and diverse knowledge with youngsters who enjoy this learning opportunity outside the traditional classroom.’

First Green has a subtle way of altering how students think about golf; many have heard ‘rumors’ that courses are somehow bad for the environment. If the kids don’t immediately take up golf after a First Green field, they at least go home with a newfound appreciation of the vast green spaces where the game is played, telling family and friends about their enjoyable learning experience.

‘Outreach by the golf industry is an important component to highlight the golf course’s role in the community. The First Green’s education and environmental program directly connects the golf course superintendent with local school programs. These efforts engage students in a high-energy, hands-on learning opportunity outdoors on the golf course.’ said Kimberly S. Erusha, Ph.D Managing Director of the USGA Green Section.

First Green surveys every child and teacher after field trips. ‘Student feedback is overwhelmingly positive,’ said First Green Marketing Director, Cathy Relyea. ‘They have fun, and feel that what they’ve learned is relevant to what they’re learning in the classroom. Teachers echo this feedback and vote with their feet, bringing their classes back year after year.’

All participants benefit from the program. ‘Having taught for over 23 years, I know the value of First Green in classrooms,’ said Lynn McKay, an Environmental Horticulture high-school teacher who’s been involved in dozens of field trips. ‘It is a unique program that brings teachers, students and golf course superintendents together in the beautiful outdoor setting of a golf course . . . what could be better?

‘Teachers are always looking for a more exciting way to get students to learn, especially when it comes to a lesson being hands-on,’ added McKay, who also mentors students interested in Environmental Science careers. ‘Being in an outdoor classroom at a golf course is more fun for the students, a place that they will always remember.’

‘Golf courses are a perfect fit for STEM learning,’ said Trevor Smith, Past President of the (British Columbia) Allied Golf Association. ‘Students are taught about soil, ecosystems, wildlife habitat, surface and ground water, storm and sewer water management and a host of environmental benefits golf courses can provide.’

‘Golf courses are beautiful and environmentally important places, particularly in urban areas,’ explained First Green Executive Director Karen Armstead. ‘Dr. Brad Smith, Dean Emeritus of Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, calls golf courses ‘the lungs of the city.’

‘First Green is a total win-win for all involved. Golf course superintendents act as community environmental leaders, hosting teachers and students for STEM labs and activities,’ added Armstead, who’s been with the organization since 2005. ‘We tell golf course superintendents that once they are connected to a school and host their first field trip, they will always see their golf course differently: they will see it through the eyes of the students. These are eyes of wonder, amazement, interest and respect for what it takes to maintain a golf course. A field trip forever impacts how students (and teachers) view golf courses and the game of golf.’

‘I have had the honor of working with one of the great golf associations in the world for the past 32 years,’ said Larry Gilhuly, USGA Agronomist for the West Region who has attended and taught at several First Green field trips. ‘In that time many programs have been started, but none hits the target of reaching out into the non-golf community better than First Green. The ability to show all of the positives of golf to groups of students and teachers allows anyone in the golf course maintenance industry to take part.

‘The truth about what the game has to offer, on so many levels, can be shared in a way by First Green that is unique and very effective.’

First Green’s website – www.thefirstgreen.org – contains many tools for superintendents interested in starting a program at their golf courses.

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