Voices in Education

Volcanoes and Huesos: An Intelligent Museum in El Paso
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 20, number 1). Copyright 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a purple bus filled with excited three- and four-year-olds pulls up outside the new Head Start IntelliZeum on El Paso’s sprawling North Side. With the help of teachers and parents, the youngsters clamber down the steps and are ushered in groups of eight inside the sparkling, 2754-square-foot facility to an interactive exhibit known as the Dinosaur Time Zone.

In the “time capsule”—a tubular-shaped room that resembles the inside of a cargo plane—they strap themselves in for a ride millions of years into the past. The door opens and several kids gasp in delight as they take in the scene before them: an erupting volcano and six life-size examples of dinosaurs, each one labeled in Spanish and English.

Teacher Dolores Ferniza then helps the children slip into khaki vests and safari hats before leading her miniature paleontologists to a giant sandbox, where she talks with them in both languages about dinosaurs and explains how they can use shovels and chisels to unearth their huesos, or bones. Next she escorts them to several tables and encourages them to work on dinosaur puzzles and fashion fossils out of modeling clay. She also introduces subject- and age-appropriate words and books in order to enhance their listening skills, expand letter recognition, and increase vocabulary. “Mira! Mira!” exclaims one boy, showing Ferniza the fossil he created. “Look! Look!” “The best way for them to learn and to remember,” she says, “is through firsthand experience.”

The Dinosaur Time Zone is just one part of what Region 19 Head Start executive director Blanca Enriquez envisioned for the IntelliZeum. Growing up in one of El Paso’s poorest neighborhoods, Enriquez had little chance to journey outside her barrio until her boyfriend bought a car at age 16. Because many of the children in her program live in similar circumstances—56 percent are from households earning less than $12,000 and 49 percent speak only Spanish—she wanted to create an interactive environment that would stimulate their creativity, imagination, and intellect. She called together five of her most creative Head Start teachers. “This year I would like to give you a new assignment,” she told them. “We’re going to create an interactive learning environment for children.”

Working side by side with a company called Exhibit Concepts, based in Vandalia, Ohio, they carefully developed the 15 areas of the IntelliZeum, which became the first of its kind in the nation when it opened its doors last winter at a cost of $1.2 million. By the end of this year, all 3,800 Head Start children in Region 19, which encompasses El Paso and Hudspeth counties, will have visited at least twice. At each exhibit or center, video-animated “Intelli-Zeum kids” greet the children and serve as their guides. The youngsters get to simulate piloting a space shuttle as they listen to lessons about the universe. They also can experience what it’s like to fly on a plane, where they visit bilingual exhibits dealing with the Arctic (El Artico), the Ocean (El Oceano) and the Rainforest (La Selva Tropical). “These are three different environments that they don’t see here in El Paso,” says Enriquez. “They get to learn about the climates, the animals, the plants, the habitats. In doing so, they count, they compare and contrast, they explore, and they learn language.” And everything is offered in multiple languages.

The IntelliZeum curriculum also spans multiple disciplines—reading, writing, math, science, history, and technology—and takes into account Texas state standards and those issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. There is a state-of-the art technology lab, which has seven computer stations with software designed especially for young children, and a “smart board” that allows teachers to simultaneously monitor their progress. Across the hall, a well-equipped literacy center provides an environment to encourage the children’s appreciation for reading and drama. A puppet theater and numerous books written in English and Spanish are stationed around the room.

Several areas are designed to get the children thinking about what they might like to be when they grow up. There’s a medical institute, where the kids don lab coats and pretend to be doctors. In the architects and engineers center, they create blueprints and then put on hard hats as they use blocks to build from their designs. There’s also a communications center, where they pretend to be newspaper or television reporters, even videotaping their own newscasts. “There is not one ‘quiet’ or ‘do not touch’ sign in the entire place,” says Hilda Rivera, manager of the interactive museum. The kids seem to like it that way.

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