"Whoa ... the tail is big ... where did they find it? ... is it a real dinosaur?"
These were just a few of the recent comments from students in a kindergarten class from Garza Elementary School in Edinburg Oct. 17 when they filed into The University of Texas-Pan American's Visitors Center to view the blockbuster exhibit "A T. rex Named Sue."
The exhibit, which was created by the Field Museum in Chicago and made possible through the generosity of the McDonald's Corporation, features a full-sized cast of the most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered and has drawn a record breaking 23,094 visitors in its first 30 days of being open free to the public. The exhibit opened Sept. 22 and will run through Jan. 4, 2009. Locally, the exhibit has been supported by the McDonald's Rio Grande Valley owner-operators as well as the UTPA GEAR UP program.
"The attendance to view Sue has already surpassed our estimate of 20,000 for total attendance during the exhibit's entire stay at the University," said Dr. John Edwards, vice president for the Division of Enrollment and Student Services, who oversees the Visitors Center.
"This exhibit is getting kids on our campus, one of our main goals as a University. We want them to feel comfortable here, like they belong on our college campus. This begins to create that college going attitude in them along with school and parental support to take the necessary steps to prepare for University admission and success. This college going culture is vital to closing the gaps in Texas," Edwards said.
Since 2003, when Admissions and New Student Services (ANSS) started successfully incorporated traveling exhibits in the Visitors Center into the UTPA campus tour program, 50,187 visitors have attended the exhibits. Prior to the exhibition on Sue, the highest attendance was 10,904 visitors for the three-month run in 2006-2007 of "A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie."
Sashua Muñiz, a facilitator at Ramiro Barrera Middle School in Roma, recently accompanied 53 sixth to eighth grade students from his school to view Sue and observed that the exhibit makes science "come alive" to the students.
"This exhibit gives a hands-on approach - not just the textbook - they see what it is about. We want kids to know that learning is fun and enjoyable and it not only takes place in the classroom but it takes place everywhere. We want them to be lifelong learners," he said.
"That is a consideration important to our student population because we have many bilingual speakers," he said.
Two of the eighth grade students who toured the exhibit with Muñiz - Leah Garza and Jovani Maldonado - said they appreciated the opportunity to view the exhibit.
Garza pronounced Sue as "beautiful" and said she is excited about one day attending UTPA.
"I have been trying to get very well informed on what I need to fulfill what I want to do," said Garza, who hopes to become a registered nurse.
Maldonado said he enjoyed the hands-on interactive pods displayed in the exhibit and thought the cast of Sue's skeleton was most impressive.
"I am in awe of the size and mass of this monstrous creature. Not a lot of people get to see it. It really makes people to want to get into archaeology," said Maldonado, who is considering a career as a scientist or engineer.
Current UTPA work-study students employed by ANSS have been trained to conduct the tours and spend some of their presentation time with the middle and high school aged students during school group tours not only talking about Sue and dinosaurs but also to encourage students to think about possible career choices and what UTPA has to offer. After students view UTPA's "Think Big" recruitment video, work study student Leticia Canchola said she answers their questions and talks to them about the importance of preparing for and attending college.
"I try to involve them as much as I can. Some students need someone besides just teachers to guide them or to provide support. Recently I helped with a migrant group that toured the exhibit and I was able to tell them about our College Assistance Migrant Program at UTPA," said Canchola, a junior from Donna majoring in communication disorders. "Also, teachers are telling me that they love the exhibit and are incorporating it into their classrooms."
"The resources are designed with all ages in mind and developed to be in line with the TEKS curriculum," she said.
Additional photos, stories and resources on Sue can be found at a multimedia site set up in collaboration McAllen's The Monitor, a daily newspaper in the Rio Grande Valley. This site can be found at http://www.themonitor.com/sections/sue-exhibition/.
Visitor Center hours for the free exhibition are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays, and 1-4 p.m. Sundays. School group tours of the exhibit can be made online by going to http://www.utpa.edu/websites/sue and filling out a tour request form. Individuals or small non-school groups who want to tour the exhibit are recommended to call 956/292-7338 available from 8 a.m.-noon to check on wait times.
While on campus, groups touring the exhibition may also want to schedule a visit to the H-E-B Planetarium where the full dome digital video, "The Dinosaur Prophecy" is being presented to also complement the "A T. rex Named Sue" exhibition. Designed for viewers of all ages, this 30-minute video involves the viewer in the investigation of how, when and why dinosaurs disappeared from Earth. For a complete schedule of planetarium shows go to www.utpa.edu/planetarium. You may also e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 956/316-7088.