The University of Texas at Austin campus may seem like an unlikely place to find groups of giddy first graders or strolling mariachi players. It might not seem like an obvious locale for freshly constructed childhood forts or Corpus Christi middle schoolers writing in clay tablets. But every year, when the university hosts Explore UT, we are reminded that anything is possible.
Visitors young and old find intrigue at Explore UT.
On March 5, Explore UT will return again, and tens of thousands of visitors from all over Texas will come to campus to discover for themselves the wonders of the university. They will leave no stone unturned as they take part in more than 300 activities and explore the many worlds that exist within our colleges, museums and libraries.
At the biggest open house in Texas it’s clear that the university belongs to everyone in the state. Its wealth of resources can have as much to offer an elementary school student as a graduate student.
Leroy Nellis discovered that last year when he accompanied second graders from East Austin to Explore UT. Nellis, a university alumnus and budget manager for Travis County, felt so strongly that young people would benefit from coming to campus that he funded four buses out of his own pocket to transport students.
“The kids were ecstatic at the exhibits they saw,” Nellis says. “They’re still talking about them a year later. And the parents and grandparents who came along are now convinced that their kids are going to go to college.”
That type of inspiration happens regularly at Explore UT. For six years visitors have come from as far as Brownsville and Amarillo, El Paso and Beaumont, and volunteers have gone out of their way to make sure everyone feels welcome. Participants keep coming back for more.
The grand finale of Explore UT is the living star photograph. At the base of the tower, students, faculty, staff and visitors from across Texas gather to create a giant Lone Star.
“Explore UT is a stunning event that grows more vibrant each year,” says William Powers Jr., dean of the UT School of Law and chair of Explore UT 2005. “There are hundreds of opportunities for visitors, especially children and prospective students, to interact with our faculty, staff and student volunteers through hands-on activities and presentations.
“We want participants at Explore UT to be comfortable exploring every corner of the university.”
The range of activities available at Explore UT represents the diversity that can be found on campus. Participants can create a personalized schedule online or simply arrive on campus, pick up a schedule and follow their whims. They might choose to:
- witness water flowing uphill
- travel through Hogwarts history
- enter the costume shop and see how to create a character for the stage
- break into a session on Watergate
- deliver the news on camera with the help of a real teleprompter
- learn the basics of stock trading and compete in a simulated virtual market
- watch a play in Czech
- check out a solar powered car
- march with the Longhorn Band
The possibilities seem endless, and there’s not an exam or pop quiz to be found.
Expect to be surprised at Explore UT.
The University Co-op is the primary sponsor of this year’s event. Cooperatively owned by the faculty, students and staff of The University of Texas at Austin, Co-op earnings support campus events, grants and student organizations.
Kids and families will find plenty of activities geared toward them, but adults and university students from here and elsewhere will find unexpected opportunities for discovery as well. Take, for example, Elizabeth Boldt, who was an undergraduate at Texas A&M University when a visit to Explore UT changed the trajectory of her life.
Boldt saw a flyer for Explore UT on the door of the advising office at Texas A&M and decided to check it out. She was finishing her degree and unsure what to do with her future. After looking at the Explore UT Web site, she made the trip to Austin.
Boldt visited the College of Pharmacy, where she attended fun sessions on compounding drugs and talked to pharmacy students about their experience in their program. It left an impression. Today she’s a first-year student in the College of Pharmacy, and she’ll be volunteering for Explore UT on Saturday.
“I’m definitely on track to become a pharmacist because I attended Explore UT,” she says. “So I hope I can do for other students what was done for me. I really got perspective from talking to my peers.”
Special guests from Mariachi Vargas will teach workshops to musicians and singers.
The College of Pharmacy is host to one of this year’s special events. In response to December’s tsunami in Southeast Asia, Explore UT will offer two sessions focused on the disaster. In “Wave of Communicable Diseases: Public Health Challenges Following the Tsunami,” an expert will look at the disease threat in tsunami devastated areas, now and over time. In a separate session, an engineering professor and graduate student will discuss remote sensing and provide a view of the massive waves from space.
Members of Mariachi Vargas, one of the world’s premier mariachi ensembles, will provide a special treat for Explore UT participants. They’ll be on hand to teach workshops to musicians and singers. Mariachi bands from Texas State University, Travis High and other schools have already made plans to take part.
After their workshops, mariachi players will take what they learned and spread out across campus to serenade Explore UT participants. They’re sure to find Texans of all ages from all over the state having a great time while uncovering the educational opportunities that are part of every day life on campus.
They may find Nellis as well. He will be back this year, having set a target of getting local schools to sponsor 20 buses to the event. Already, 71 buses from the Austin area are on board and a total of 100 expected across the state. Nellis knows that the experience the kids on those buses have will last for more than the afternoon. He hopes it will last for their entire lives.
“I know of no better way to establish a desire to learn in a child’s mind than to show them one of the best universities in the country,” he says. “This is one of the greatest things the university does for the community.”
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Photos: Marsha Miller