From Odessa to Brownsville, Explore UT opens higher education’s doors to thousands of Texans

Feb. 25, 2008

When Jacob Schroeder and 30 of his friends from high schools in southwest Texas make the 150-mile trip to The University of Texas at Austin for the ninth annual Explore UT, they will join more than 50,000 people visiting campus that day, but they won’t feel like strangers.

This will be a return trip for Schroeder and his friends, who have previously been on campus to meet professors and students, attend science seminars and learn about majors.

Schroeder spent the past three summers in a college preparatory program run by the university. Now he’s excited to volunteer at Explore UT, the annual outreach event showcasing the university for the people of Texas, so he can “give back,” he says, and “show younger students that they can also be a part of something great.”

Inspiring Excellence

Inspiring the next generation to pursue higher education is one of the goals of Explore UT, the annual outreach event known as “the biggest open house in Texas” that draws thousands of parents, students and visitors from across the state to learn about research and educational opportunities at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Our future depends on the young men and women who will pass through the doors of higher education,” says Eric Barron, dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences and chair of Explore UT. “Each year Explore UT fires the curiosity of thousands of students. We hope they will pass through our open doors, enjoy the full range of our activities and help us shape a great future for Texas.”

Visitors to the ninth annual Explore UT on Saturday, March 1 can select from more than 370 free activities designed to inspire a love of learning.

Elementary and middle school students, arriving in school buses from across the state, can search for fossils, build miniature solar cars, attend a Hogwarts Potions class in jungle pharmacology, take part in the mock trial of Gold E. Locks or make multicultural crafts at the Children’s International Festival.

High school students and prospective degree-seekers can meet undergraduates from all of the university’s colleges and schools and attend admissions sessions on specific graduate disciplines, such as business, engineering and law.

Political junkies will find plenty to choose from, including an analysis of the 2008 presidential election from one of President Clinton’s former advisers, a discussion of U.S.-China business relations and a multimedia lecture on politics in film by Emmy Award-winning director Paul Stekler.

Each year Explore UT fires the curiosity of thousands of students. We hope they will pass through our open doors, enjoy the full range of our activities and help us shape a great future for Texas. Eric Barron, dean, Jackson School of Geosciences, chair, Explore UT 2008Visitors can navigate the day’s activities with help from volunteers and color-coded maps, or they can use an online tool to create a personalized schedule. A full day might include:

  • Panning for gold
  • Experiencing X-ray vision
  • Delivering the news on camera
  • Dancing in the chorus line of a Broadway show
  • Getting stock tips from finance experts
  • Attending a “dress for success” fashion show
  • Making a cyanotype, an 1850s-era photograph
  • Finding out what killed the dinosaurs
  • Learning how to improve your home's energy efficiency
  • Testing out a medieval catapult
  • Posing for photos with university mascots.

Capping off the day, the Longhorn Band will march across campus, leading hundreds of participants to the Tower, where they will gather for a living insignia photograph. This year’s photo will be a giant configuration of the letters “UT.”

Closing the Gaps

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 program’s wide range of activities started with its inception in 1999. Larry Faulkner, then president of the university, began Explore UT to inform the public about the university’s mission and broaden the horizons of schoolchildren, motivating them to aspire to higher education.

Schroeder’s experience speaks to the latter goal. Most of the volunteers at Explore UT are university students, faculty and staff, but Schroeder will volunteer with fellow high school juniors from 21 public schools in southwest Texas. Schroeder and his friends are enrolled in GeoFORCE Texas, a summer program that encourages outstanding high school students from select school districts to pursue college studies, particularly in math, science and the geosciences.

Explore UT
Explore UT Saturday, March 1.

GeoFORCE is all about closing the gaps in higher education—encouraging more first-generation college students, increasing the number of underrepresented minorities seeking degrees and drawing more students of all backgrounds into the science and technology workforce.

Explore UT has a wider goal than GeoFORCE, but the event likewise emphasizes the accessibility of a college degree for all Texans, regardless of ethnic or socio-economic background. For many younger students, Explore UT offers the first glimpse of college life, seeding the idea they can get a university education.

According to Steve Murdock, former state demographer of Texas and now director of the U.S. Census Bureau, the younger generation’s ability to earn college degrees will be crucial to the future of Texas.

“Higher levels of education are related to socioeconomic success,” writes Murdock, noting this is true not just for individuals but for states. College graduates earn, on average, almost twice as much as high school graduates, and states with higher levels of college graduates tend to have higher average incomes.

Texas rates poorly on all indicators: 38th for average household income, 31st for percentage of population with bachelor’s degrees and dead last for percentage graduated from high school, according to 2006 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Demographic changes are making the crisis acute. The country’s fastest-growing state numerically, Texas is adding most of its population among Hispanics, who have a lower rate of educational attainment than other segments of the population.

Jacob Schroeder

Jacob Schroeder, a high school student from southwest Texas, spent the past three summers in a college preparatory program run by The University of Texas at Austin. Now he’s excited to volunteer at Explore UT, the annual outreach event showcasing the university for the people of Texas.

Against this backdrop, Explore UT sends an important message to thousands of young students whose hopes and dreams will determine the state’s welfare. Volunteers like Schroeder and his friends from southwest Texas can be role models for Hispanic students, ambassadors to a more educated future.

Hands-On Learning

During Explore UT, attention from volunteers makes one of the country’s largest campuses feel more personal. The day also places a premium on hands-on learning. Whether visitors are editing video with film students, handling edible algae or learning about Yoruban music, they touch, taste and hear as they learn.

The best moments, say Explore UT veterans, take place when older and younger students interact.

“It all comes together when you see the younger kids learn from the university students,” says Sue Hovorka, a senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology. “That’s when their eyes light up, like they realize, ‘I could do this.’”

Schroeder and his fellow high school volunteers from southwest Texas believe they can do it—all of the GeoFORCE students plan on attending college, and many hope to get into The University of Texas at Austin.

“I think it would be cool to attend UT because I am fascinated by the university itself and its location,” says Schroeder, who lists geophysics, civil and mechanical engineering as possible majors.

Looking forward to his volunteer day, Schroeder wants to help “show younger students that choosing the right school is extremely important. They should set their goals high and always aim to achieve their goals.”

By J.B. Bird

Photos: Office of Public Affairs