U, science museum to teach ecology through mini-golf, grass maze

by Emily Ayshford

On rainy summer days the number of outdoor activities falls, making the Science Museum of Minnesota a popular indoor destination.

But a new prairie maze and miniature golf course with University connections aims to draw an outdoor crowd to the museum.

The outdoor exhibit, “Big Back Yard,” adds a new facet to the St. Paul mainstay.

Pat Hamilton, director of earth-system and environmental sciences at the museum, said the exhibit will offer a variety of science phenomena that cannot be exhibited indoors.

“You can put a sandbox in your living room, but it’s much easier to put it in your backyard,” he said.

The University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment partially funded the 17,000 square foot prairie maze, which the museum will plant this year.

The exhibit aims to teach visitors about the relationships between an ecosystem’s biodiversity and productivity, and biomass energy.

Dave Tilman, an ecology, evolution and behavior professor who sits on the museum’s board, suggested the maze as a fun and educational experience about prairie grass.

He said maze-goers will get lost in the tall prairie grass, but only experience “10 or 20 minutes of being lost.”

The St. Anthony Falls Laboratory-based National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics sponsored the nine-hole miniature golf course.

Throughout the golf course, visitors will travel from the highlands of North America to the Gulf of Mexico, learning about drainage basins, erosion and other surface processes.

The exhibit will open June 26.