George Lucas Educational Foundation

Simulated Environments Engage Students

A rain forest dome and a mock-up of a silver mine enhance science learning for elementary school students in Clark County, Nevada.
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Simulated Environments Engage Students (Transcript)

Woman: Last time we came here, we were looking at the shapes, edges, and the veins of leaves.

Narrator: At Vanderburg Elementary School, students visit this lush, tropical rainforest throughout the school day.

Woman: What is special about this leaf that is going to help it live in the understory?

There's just a little bit of light that will help it survive.

Narrator: The rainforest biosphere is a living learning lab, a controlled environment full of tropical plants and animals that students study and help care for.

Woman: Look at the structure, guys. Look at this leaf. Is this the kind of leaf that we looked at yesterday?

Narrator: It's a million-dollar oasis designed with student input, built and paid for by community volunteers.

Carolyn: What it took was the creative minds of many people and also getting the community involved. It was not funded by our school district. We were able to get people to believe in our vision in order to make this become a reality, so what we did, in fact, we created a rainforest here in the desert so that children can compare the rainforest biome with the desert biome.

Woman: What layer of the rainforest do we call that really high up?

The canopy?

Lisa: We have been working for a year now on developing curriculum for students and teachers to bring their classes here and do lessons within our biosphere. Every grade level has designated a theme that runs through the rainforest. For example, third grade is teaching about the peoples of the rainforest, and they come in here and they can do science or they can do anything within the curriculum.

Woman: So now, does anybody know what an artifact might be?

Student: An artifact is something from long ago that people used to use.

Lisa: Within this environment, they're learning how everything is connected. It's not just plants and animals. It's how people are interacting with the plants and animals and the types of effects that we have on the environment.

Narrator: The biosphere has become a field-trip destination for other Las Vegas schools, and that gives Vanderburg fifth-graders a chance to act as docents for the visitors.

We're going to go to Rainforests of the World, Central America, to learn more about Guatemala.

This one here is the open-pit copper mine.

Narrator: Another top field-trip destination is McCaw Elementary School, where visitors can explore a replica of a silver mine.

Man: Howdy, boys and girls. Welcome to McCaw School of Mines.

Narrator: Tours in the School of Mines address curriculum standards in history and earth science.

It has all these levels called steps.

Narrator: And in hands-on activities like panning for gold...

Man: Pick up the pan with the ripples away from you.

Narrator: ...McCaw students teach visitors about the science of mining.

Over here are some little drills.

Cheyann: It's very interesting that I get to talk to kids and I get to teach them what they want to learn, and they are always looking at it and talking about it and saying how cool it is.

Man: This is a model of our mine. You can see a chute going up.

Narrator: Community volunteers built and financed the School of Mines, and local architect Bill Snyder volunteered to design it.

Snyder: So we went to Disneyland and we went to the Indiana Jones ride, where they created the illusion of taking people down underground and into a cave situation. So we sort of figured out with the resources that we had what we could do. And it's kind of funny, because the company that built the Indiana Jones ride actually did the work here for us as well, and what we did to get them to do that, we had several kids help us write pleading letters to them, and we took the model that we built of this and we set it in their lobby for about a month before they said, "Okay, we surrender. How can we help?"

Narrator: Local volunteers also help out as docents.

Dorothy: Right now, I have about 35 volunteers, and most of them are retired. Many of them are in their late 70s or early 80s and they love interacting with the kids. And it's amazing how they bond with them. It's a fun thing, and it keeps us young.

Man: Somebody has got to put it here with the hard hat and pick up all the loose stuff.

James: I like kids, and I try to make it interesting for the kids. And anything that will make it interesting for the kids, learn for the kids, learn about Nevada, I'm for it.

It looks good.

Narrator: The Mine School and the biosphere are examples of what can happen when community members, teachers, and students come together to invent new ways to learn.

Carolyn: This is unique, and it is truly thinking outside of the box, moving beyond the status quo, and doing something for children to truly get them excited and turned on about education and about learning.

Lisa: So what's the part underneath the canopy of the rainforest? What's it like?

It has some light, but not much.

Lisa: That's right.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Roberta Furger
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Rob Weller
  • Jeremy Settles


  • Kris Welch

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

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C.P. Squires Elementary School harnesses parents, businesspeople, and retirees for academic and financial support and staff after-school programs.

Simulating Environments: Real-Life Replicas Engage Students
A rain forest dome and a mock-up of a silver mine enhance science learning in Clark County, Nevada.

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