Phil Mickelson might be the biggest nerd in golf.
So when the hall of famer realized that the U.S. is falling behind in STEM achievement, he felt a personal motivation to help fix the problem.
"Almost 90 percent of [5th-8th grade] students are taught by teachers who don't have any accreditation in these fields, so they are teaching out of the textbook without much passion," Mickelson said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "If the teachers don't feel confident in their techniques, and if they don’t know how to get kids involved in science projects, then it's very difficult to get our kids passionate about it."
In 2005, Mickelson and his wife, Amy, partnered with ExxonMobil, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Math Solutions to form the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. The Academy provides week-long, all-expenses-paid professional development programs for 3rd-5th grade science and math teachers across the U.S. The goal is to give teachers the skills they need to make science and math engaging and fun for elementary students.
To date, nearly 4,000 teachers have gone through the academy, impacting almost a quarter of a million students. Most of the teachers come from schools with student populations that are underrepresented in mathematics, science, and technology.
Mickelson also hopes that the programs will help close the STEM gender gap by better-equipping teachers to inspire girls in the classroom. As the father of two middle-school-age daughters, he recognizes firsthand the barriers that girls face.
"Girls think it's almost uncool to be smart at math and science," Mickelson said. "That attitude needs to change, and we need teachers and role models to take the lead. Amy and I work all the time to show our daughters the science all around us...It can be little things like taking them to our female pediatrician, just so that they can see that it is cool and it is possible."
Mickelson's own passion for science grew out of the desire to improve his golf game. He works closely with engineers to develop new golf club technology, and sometimes consults NASA scientists for help studying the course before a big game.
"I found that rougher faces, or different grooves on a wedge created more spin, and that I could create different shots by changing the angle or path of the golf ball," Mickelson said.
"I analyze the science of it all beforehand, so that when I get to the course, all those decisions have been predetermined and all I have to do is feel the shot. I don’t have to analyze those things while I’m playing."
Nicole Martin, one of the instructors at the academy, was formerly a participant in one of the organization's programs.
"My students' lives were enriched, and my life too," Martin said. "I realized that when teachers have the opportunity to explore learning in different ways, it can change the trajectory of students' and their lives."
Check out academy instructor Nicole Martin in the video below as she demonstrates one of the hands-on lessons taught at the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy: The egg-drop test.