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The Biggest Open House in Texas: Coming from every corner of the state, Texans embark on new adventures at Explore UT

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They come from all over Texas, but none make a longer trip to Austin than the teachers, parents and students from Lasara in south Texas. Their 312-mile journey by bus to Explore UT on The University of Texas at Austin campus begins at 3:30 a.m.

Explore UT
Explore UT Saturday, March 3.

This is the kind of dedication Explore UT inspires. Last year more than 40,000 Texans traveled to the university’s annual open house, arriving in buses and cars and bicycles and spreading out across campus to learn folk dances, check out lunar rocks and serve as jurors in the mock trial of Gold E. Locks.

The Lasara contingent made their first trip last year, and they enjoyed it so much they were the first to register a bus for this year’s event. Forty-six students will board the bus before dawn bound for Austin.

The eighth annual Explore UT happens on March 3, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on The University of Texas at Austin campus. The university’s doors will be thrown wide open, offering more than 300 activities for kids of all ages.

“This is the biggest event of the spring,” says Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and chairperson of Explore UT. “I don’t think there’s anything better than having everyone, especially kids, come to campus every year and feel that they are part of this university.”

When they get here, they’ll find an adventure waiting. With so much going on, Explore UT offers a different experience for every participant.

At Travis Heights Elementary in Austin, Explore UT is treated like a family field trip, with students and parents meeting at the school to take a bus to the event. Although the school is only five miles from campus, the trip to Explore UT is often the first time the students have visited the university.

Explore UT participants don 3-D goggles to view geological formations
Explore UT participants don 3-D goggles to view geological formations, including the Texas coast being smashed by a hurricane and sand dunes as they were created and then destroyed by nature. Photo: Mark Mulligan.

photo icon of camera Visit a PHOTO GALLERY of other images from Explore UT 2006.

“Most of the students have never been on this or any other college campus,” says Vielka Ridley, parent support specialist at Travis Heights, “and neither have their parents. If I get the kids excited and their parents onto campus to walk around, they stop being intimidated.

“‘This is your university,’ I tell them. ‘Bring your kids. Come on the weekend. Have a picnic. The museums are open.’”

Explore UT enables Ridley to open up conversations about getting a college education with students and their parents. Her students have loved having the opportunity to visit residence halls, watch films on aerodynamics and then fashion expert paper airplanes. Bilingual university students have greeted their bus and shared their own stories about going to college.

This year, students from Travis Heights, Lasara and the rest of Texas can take advantage of the diverse possibilities 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:

  • Learn to write their names in scripts and alphabets from across the world
  • Use a radar gun to discover how fast they can throw a tennis ball
  • Brush up on Hogwarts history in anticipation of the final Harry Potter book
  • Get ready to save the Earth from falling asteroids
  • Look at the sun through a high-powered solar telescope
  • Check out life in a Central Asian yurt
  • Quiver at the story of saber-toothed cats in Texas
  • Find their inner poet
  • Explore the strange world of quantum physics

Art will play a special role in this year’s Explore UT. The university’s Blanton Museum opened its new building in April and participants will have the opportunity to visit the spectacular building and the great art in its galleries. Hot Art Hip Kids will run all day, with art-making activities for children and their families.

Living insignia photograph of Bevo, the university's mascot
The grand finale of every Explore UT is the moment crowds gather to make a living insignia. This year the tradition will be made new when participants create the shape of the state of Texas.

In addition, the university’s Harry Ransom Center celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The Ransom Center will be chock full of activities, with magicians and even an exhibition come to life, as actors portray characters from the American Twenties exhibit. Youngsters can work with Ransom Center staff to make a book about their visit, or pose for a professional artist for a caricature.

The University Co-op, cooperatively owned by the faculty, students and staff of The University of Texas at Austin, is a major sponsor of Explore UT.

The finale of every Explore UT begins when the Longhorn Band makes its annual march across campus, leading participants back to the Tower. Hundreds gather there for the living insignia photograph.

This year’s class photo will be of participants gathered in the shape of the state of Texas. Nothing could be more appropriate as people from around the state—Arlington to Lasara, Houston to Eagle Pass—come together in the center of campus.

Though the event officially ends when the photo is snapped and participants return to their bicycles and cars and buses to head home, the experience of attending Explore UT can change people for years to come. Kids and their parents see that the university is someplace that belongs to them now, and in the future.

Explore UT can bring about changes at schools as well. At Travis Heights Elementary, the enthusiasm over a robotics workshop at Explore UT led to a new opportunity for all of the students.

“The kids came back so excited about making robots that they wanted to do it at school as well,” Ridley says. “They were bugging us to death about robots, so we created an after school class about robotics for them. Being at Explore UT got them thinking, ‘I can do this!’”

BY Vivé Griffith

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  Updated 5 March 2007
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