Journalistic Scavenger Hunts: Fun Teaching Tool
Scavenger hunts may seem like an odd choice for journalism education, but they were precisely what I needed this past summer to help train a group of young journalists.
I developed this offbeat idea as a member of the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle-Schoolers. IJIMS (a group of faculty and students from The College of New Jersey), ran a two-week summer program for teachers and students from a local middle school. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program was a collaboration of journalists and programmers. Our goal was to teach the middle school students the skills to build an online magazine.
The "source hunts," as I came to call them, seemed simple enough. We organized the students into teams of reporters. Each team got a list of five questions. Then they sought out their potential sources, who were scattered throughout the building. The "sources" were really just members of the IJIMS team portraying various characters. Student reporters introduced themselves to each source, ask the source's name and qualifications, and then ask the questions on their list. But there was a catch: Although every source would answer every question, those answers weren't always correct.
That's where the learning began. The teams only got one chance to turn in their answers at the end of the hunt, so they needed to consider the reliability of each source to determine the best answer. Should they trust Donald Trump about the airfare question, or the travel agent? This example sounds easy, but the complexity rose with each additional source and answer.
While our source hunt was fairly simple, the process is scalable. Educators could easily make more difficult hunts that are suitable for high school, undergrad, even professional-level participants. If you have doubts that adults would enjoy the process, talk to the middle school teachers who tested the initial hunts: friendly competition is a blast, no matter how old you are.
Yes, this was competitive. The first team to answer all five questions correctly received a prize for winning the source hunt. In the media world, it is important to get stories done quickly to beat the competition, and we wanted our students to learn this firsthand.
But our experience with the source hunts was a lesson about research: No one gets it right on the first try.
When you tell kids they are in a race, they do what you might expect -- they run around like crazy. While they might be learning, watching them knock over their sources made me reconsider the game rules. So on the second day we introduced a behavioral rule: The team that was most thorough and polite (as judged by the sources) would also receive a prize. This rule has a precedent in the real world -- if you are respectful to sources, they will probably help you again in the future.
So like any good iterative process, we changed the game as the players evolved. By the third day of source hunts, we were teaching three powerful lessons without using a word of lecture or a speck of chalk. The game boosted the rest of our curriculum as well. Children are kinesthetic beings, so burning off energy after lunch allowed them to focus when they sat in the lab each afternoon.
And finally, the source hunts helped our students develop their computational thinking as well. These hunts were a type of game, after all, and required the use of game methodology to create and solve. What is the fastest route to interview all the sources? Which sources can be eliminated, based on their qualifications? How much time should be spent making small-talk?
In the end, I think we learned just as much about game theory and kinesthetic teaching as the students learned about journalism and computing. And judging by their online magazine, we all had quite an experience.
Guest author Scott Keiffer is a senior journalism and interactive multimedia student at the College of New Jersey.