Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Fair Park for Thriving Minds: How a Dallas Park Partnered in a Remarkable Summer Camp Experiment

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Fair Park for Thriving Minds: How a Dallas Park Partnered in a Remarkable Summer Camp Experiment

Article excerpt

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On July 18, hoards of yellow school buses pulled through the gates of historic Fair Park in Dallas, dropping off nearly 2,000 middle school students. But this wasn't a typical school field trip to Fair Park's museums. These students were part of the Thriving Minds Summer Camp, a joint venture of Dallas education nonprofit Big Thought and Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD) that transformed the exhibition halls and cultural institutions into hands-on learning laboratories for students and teachers. For two weeks, more than 250 educators, multiple museums, and hundreds of professionals across various industries came together in an experiment to reshape summer learning for Dallas' most underperforming students.

Last summer Big Thought, a nonprofit devoted to closing the opportunity gap in education through creative learning, joined with Dallas ISD to reimagine summer learning for elementary school students. Taking best-practices from that effort, the two organizations developed the framework for the Thriving Minds middle school summer camp, which offered an alternative learning environment centered on project-based activities and career exploration to students who had failed one or more classes during the regular school year. This type of project-based approach has been shown to motivate students to take charge of their own learning.

"Summer camp should reflect a time of fun, a time of exploration and of seeing things differently, in different environments," says Margie Reese, vice president of programs for Big Thought. "Fair Park was the only venue that came to mind as we conceptualized the design of the middle school summer camp. With its rich collection of artistic, cultural and historical treasures, it made for a dynamic learning environment for our students and was a natural complement to the curriculum developed for the program."

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Operated by the City of Dallas Park and Recreation department, Fair Park is a 277-acre venue built in the 1930s that contains one of the largest complexes of cultural, entertainment, exhibit, and sports facilities in the southwestern United States. A national historic landmark, Fair Park also offers the world's largest collection of 1930s Art Deco exposition buildings and annually hosts the nation's largest state fair. And recently, The American Planning Association named Fair Park as one of 10 Great Public Spaces for 2011 under the organization's Great Places in America program.

Big Thought and Dallas ISD worked jointly with Fair Park's museums to develop a specialized, full-day curriculum that would help boost students' skills in core academic subjects. In a typical day, participants would study habitats and aquatic life at the Children's Aquarium where they had a literal hands-on experience with stingrays, or use their math skills to analyse theater production budgets with Dallas Summer Musicals. One group of seventh graders researched Texas history and learned about folk heroes at the Hall of State and Women's Museum. They then created a colorful mural out of tiny bits of paper depicting the figures they had studied.

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"The idea of doing a summer camp where kids could come and use Fair Park for science projects at the lagoon or to learn about engine combustion at the Texas Museum of Automotive History was intriguing," says Daniel Huerta, executive general manager of Fair Park. …

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