Community & News
The WORLD at their fingertips - EcoLand enhances learning with unique hands-on exhibits
Posted: Saturday, January 24, 2015
By James Draper Kilgore News Herald
The Piney Woods fill one room, the polar snows another – EcoLand, Lisa Richardson says, brings the world to East Texas. “How many people can walk into the Serengeti?”
As of October, Head Start students can. And their Pre-K peers. In time, even more will. All in the new South Danville Road early learning center.
“It’s lots of learning they wouldn’t get if it wasn’t for Region 7,” explained Richardson, education specialist at the Education Services Center’s latest endeavor. “It’s all about extending the classroom, giving the children an opportunity to do some innovative hands-on learning.
“It’s quite phenomenal to see their faces as they leave.”
‘Field trip’ is a bit of bad word for the learning center staffers. Shepherding scores of Overton’s little learners through the two-story, freshly-renovated facility Wednesday, the Head Start educators under- scored the structured environment their young guests enter.
Fun and futuristic it may be, EcoLand is functional. “It’s not a free-for-all,” Richardson said. “We’ve written all the pre- and post-activities and everything is lined up with the Pre-K Guidelines” as well as the age-appropriate Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS).
The converted Head Start facility – more than five years in development and about $4 million invested through federal funds and Region 7’s reserves – is currently open to students in Preschool Programs for Children with Disabilities (PPCD) as well as the Pre-K and Head Start classes within Region 7’s service area, about 50,000 students in 17 counties.
However, Ashley Patterson noted, the 14,000 square-foot facility will welcome Kindergarten students by the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. Restricted to classroom visits, “We’ll open it up to a new grade level each year,” the Region 7 communications specialist explained, ultimately drawing students as old as 8.
A trip to EcoLand begins long before the students arrive.
Before they can bring classes to the facility, teachers must first earn a certification during a summertime seminar, learning how to effectively use the learning center’s materials and exhibits. Likewise, any accompanying parents or adults must also be trained. “As extensive as our activities are it’s not something you can just walk into,” Richardson explained.
Those activities include everything from basic building blocks to interlinked exercise bikes that power wall-displays. One room contains an array of rocks and child-sized, high-power magnifiers as well as a miniaturized pump jack. Other areas focus on trees and other plant life as well as the animals that reside in and near them, details often tailored to East Texas but reaching out to far-flung climes as well.
“The main concept of these is try to expose kids to areas they may never get to see, going out into the jungle or down into a submarine, just to spark their interest,” explains Exhibit Concepts Project Manager Marvin Mescher. Based in Dayton, Ohio, the firm is responsible for numerous learning centers in Texas and elsewhere. “It’s a lot of visual stimulation, audio stimulation, hands-on play.
Return trips are almost a necessity: “There’s obviously more to do in a space than the 46 minutes they have in each.”
By design, the center’s second floor focuses primarily on energy between the wind power room and solar center, according to Jerry Spangler, vice president of special environments for Exhibit Concepts.
Tailored for young children, it’s an all-in-one introduction, “Very basic fundamentals in energy; using natural resources in a different way,” he explained. “Recycling is another element of that as well.
“It’s an early learning environment. The curriculum here is very specific for 3-years to 5-years. It’s a very specific curriculum, and that’s where it differs from a public space or museum.”
Alignment with TEKS and the Pre-K Guidelines is essential, Patterson repeated.
“Basically it’s to give them a jump start on what they’re going to be learning in school and help broaden their horizons as they learn,” she said. “That’s why Region 7 wanted to have a building like this, to help facilitate those opportunities for learning.
“They didn’t want it to be like a field trip here. It’s really an experience. Give them a learning environment that allows them to take advantage of their senses. ”
For more information about EcoLand, visit ecoland.esc7.net.
Maddox Wright assembles a puzzle in the Serengeti room.
EcoLand Education Specialist Kathy Assenheimer cheers on Rusk Primary student Burton Crain during his visit to the early learning center Wednesday. Exercise bikes in the second floor energy pod power lighted displays on one wall.
Kaisen Ford recycles cardboard.