Houston comes to Rice for an UnConvention-al open house

The billboards said, “Houston, you’re invited.” And Houstonians accepted Rice’s invitation.

Thousands of visitors ventured onto campus last week for the UnConvention, a multiday open house designed to let the public explore Rice’s “unconventional wisdom.”

“One of our goals for Rice’s centennial is to involve our home city of Houston in the celebration, and the UnConvention was our way of inviting people to campus to explore the great variety of intellectual, creative and recreational options our university offers,” said Linda Thrane, vice president for public affairs. “We wanted visitors to feel welcome on our campus and to be informed and entertained while they were here. The feedback we’ve received from anecdotes and emails indicate that the UnConvention did just that.”

The UnConvention was a centennial-year reinvention of the old Rice Engineering Show, which debuted in 1920 and became an annual tradition. Back then, thousands visited the campus to witness marvels of science and engineering – from X-ray machines to remote-controlled cars – that signified a shiny, high-tech future.

On Saturday, Joe Watt ’54 and a young friend, ninth-grader Chris York, came from Beaumont to check out the UnConvention. Watt, who majored in engineering at Rice, remembered the old Engineering Shows, which were suspended during World War II but returned in the 1950s.

“The electrical engineers one year had a microwave oven and roasted hot dogs,” Watt recalled. It was 1953 or ’54, years before the microwave was a common household appliance, and this miraculous cooking contraption attracted quite a crowd, he said.

Last week’s UnConvention offered modern-day marvels for a 21st-century audience. Students showed off their inventions at the Engineering Design Showcase. Engineering majors made instant ice cream with liquid nitrogen, producing a cold cloud of gas – whoosh – that drew oohs and ahhs. And visitors gathered around to peer at a solar-powered car, which was built by Rice students and came in second last month at the Shell Eco-marathon.

Outside of Rice Memorial Center, a basketball-playing robot attracted a constant crowd of kids Saturday afternoon. The four-wheeled creature, developed by the Lamar High School robotics team with help from Rice mentors, could collect a ball from the ground and shoot it up into the air.

Susan Schrakamp White ’86 said her two kids, 8-year-old Jack and Alison, 12, were fascinated by the robot. “They spent at least an hour on that,” she said. Later that afternoon, White’s kids were planted at the make-your-own-Silly-Putty station near Brochstein Pavilion.

White was thrilled to see them having fun with science and technology. “I never really had any firsthand, interesting exposure to science as a kid, and it makes all the difference,” she said. She watched Jack and Alison discover the magic of litmus paper and giggle at a cloud of dry ice as they learned some basic chemistry from Rice students.

“This is interesting for the kids,” White said. “But also for me, as a parent, it was fantastic to help get them more fired up about science – and to get them more fired up about Rice.”

Of course, there was more than science going on at the UnConvention. A new installation by artist Yasuaki Onishi opened April 13 at Rice Gallery, and a steady stream of visitors wandered through the gallery to gaze at the delicate, floating sheet suspended by gossamer strands of hot glue.

The schedule was packed with performances by Shepherd School of Music students, Rice Dance Theatre and the Rice jazz bands. The Marching Owl Band, better known as the MOB, put on a show Saturday in the Central Quad near Brochstein Pavilion, which housed the main information tables for visitors seeking details on the more than 120 scheduled events.

The UnConvention offered plenty of ways to celebrate Rice’s unconventional mascot. Visitors took pictures with Sammy the Owl. They turned sheets of paper into origami owls. At the Houston Zoo’s ZooMobile tent, guests peered at an eastern screech owl named Sage, who peered back.

On Saturday morning, volunteers from the Rice Student Volunteer Program and the Student Association served up 450 pancakes to about 150 people in Rice Memorial Center’s Ray Courtyard. The Pancakes for Parkinson’s benefit breakfast raised more than $2,100 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

“We put about a year into planning, so it’s nice to see it coming together,” said event co-chair Sarah James, a Brown College senior, as donors lined up at two pancake serving stations.

Nearby, on the southern end of the Central Quad, Rice staff and visitors gathered to dedicate the Centennial tree, a bur oak donated by the Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum committee. The new tree celebrates the university’s recent designation as a Tree Campus USA, an honor given by the Arbor Day Foundation.

“From the very beginning, the aesthetics of this campus have been a critical part of our heritage,” President David Leebron told the gathered crowd. “When our first president, Edgar Odell Lovett, imagined the campus, he imagined it with boulevards lined with trees.”

Suneel Tiruveedhula and his family wandered along those tree-lined streets Saturday, admiring the campus. The UnConvention was their first visit to Rice. In fact, Tiruveedhula said, “this is the first time we’ve been to a university in the U.S.”

Tiruveedhula earned a master’s degree in computer applications in India, but he hasn’t had a reason to visit a college campus since his family moved to Houston. He and his 7-year-old son, Abhinav, checked out some of the engineering events Saturday afternoon, including a computer game design demonstration.

“He’s good in math – he’s going to a university (someday)”, Tiruveedhula said. “I wanted him to have a visit.”

Rice spent weeks encouraging Houstonians to do just that. This spring a Houston METRORail train has made its rounds with a wrap that celebrates Rice’s centennial; Metro station posters invited passengers to join the celebration at the UnConvention. Billboards went up around town; thousands of flyers went out to local schools. Rice extended its invitation to Houston in newspapers, online, on the radio and even in movie theaters, with ads placed among the previews.

Amalia Bustamante saw the UnConvention schedule online and brought her twin sons to campus Saturday morning. With an event guide in her hands, she herded them from a creative writing exercise to a science-and-engineering session.

“I like to be involved in the community,” Bustamante said. “And it’s also inspiration for the kids.”

Bustamante’s oldest son is a sophomore at Rice. “The first time he came to Rice was when he was 9 years old,” she said. “Since then, he had a picture in his mind: ‘That is the college I want to go to.’” She hoped the same thing might happen for her twins, who are fifth-graders, if they spent some time on campus.

For several days, visitors like Bustamante mingled with the Rice community. Kids attended classes taught by Rice professors. Their parents joined tours led by Rice staff and students. On April 12, a local retirement home brought over a busload of residents to hear Rice sociologist Stephen Klineberg’s talk about the Houston Area Survey. And throughout the week, visitors young and old rubbed shoulders with Rice students eager to show them their research, their inventions and their pancake-flipping skills.

“We built a lot of goodwill for Rice during the UnConvention, and that should serve the university well during the rest of its centennial year and into the future,” Thrane said.

Rice Marketing Director Bill Courtney, who organized the event, attributed its success  to campuswide teamwork. “We had the entire Public Affairs team joined by close to 500 volunteers and assistance from Rice University Police Department, Facilities, Engineering and Planning, shuttle bus drivers, parking staff, Housing and Dining, Fondren Library, Continuing Studies, Admission, Valhalla, HOOTS, the bookstore, Administration and other entities at Rice,” he said. “Every school was involved by staging lectures, talks, demonstrations, tours, performances or other activities. It was a real community-building experience, and the Rice community seemed to enjoy it as much as their guests.”

Courtney welcomes feedback about the UnConvention from volunteers, participants and visitors. Send comments to bill.courtney@rice.edu.

About Alyson Ward

Alyson Ward is a writer in Public Affairs at Rice University.