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Students brace for the hunt

Who traveled west due to poor health before landing a job at Southern Oregon University, where he or she worked on more than 200 projects across the region? And once you figure that one out: why did this mystery person write, in a trade article, that cedar should be avoided?

These are the kinds of obscure facts that local students formed into teams representing middle schools — the 38th-annual high school competition wrapped up Nov. 20 — will be scanning the internet for during the State of Jefferson Academic Scavenger Hunt, which will be held Dec. 8-11 and Dec. 16-18 (for the final “adjudication” round) on laptops and smartphones near you.

Organized by Southern Oregon University Youth Programs and designed to, among other things, encourage intellectual curiosity and “increase knowledge of how to access and critically analyze sources of information,” the middle-school scavenger hunt’s 22nd year in the Rogue Valley will be altered to account for COVID-19 but not drastically so. Eleven local middle-school teams are signed up this year, according to Katherine Gosnell, assistant director of SOU Youth Programs, who help organize the event.

The team that finishes with the most points wins. To earn points, teams must answer questions posed by hunt director Jim Impara. They can also earn bonus points by participating in “bring-in” challenges, which range widely in difficulty and point value. One of the bring-in challenges this year requires teams to create a stop-motion animation video — more than 40 seconds in length but no longer than 2 minutes — that tells the classic story of “The Fall of Icarus.” That’s a six-pointer they’ll have to earn, but arguably not the most difficult bring-in challenge.

The questions will also push the students by going far beyond standard trivia fare. Impara, explains Gosnell, is responsible for coming up with the questions and takes the job very seriously.

“He’s looking for things that are supposed to be unsearchable on the web, at least you’d have to go two or three clicks, digging deep to find the research,” Gosnell said. “In a normal year, he would be asking the students to look for things that I think he likes to say are unGoogleable, but I’m not sure what out there is unGoogleable anymore.”

Not much, which is why the questions, which often include clues, sometimes require quite a bit of reading, pouring over pages upon pages of documents and possibly even a little creative deduction to find his needle-in-a-haystack answers. One question from a previous scavenger hunt, for instance, asked teams to name which king’s castle was located across the street from a famous church in a particular city.

“You have to do a little digging to figure out where is this old church, which city in Eastern Europe is it in, and (Impara) talks about the significance of the church and the cathedral,” Gosnell said.

Eventually, those clever enough to locate the church brought it up on Google maps, dropped a pin, looked around and discovered that the infamous “king’s castle” was indeed across the street, selling whoppers: Burger King, of course.

Another year, teams were tasked with reaching out to the Veterans Affairs rehabilitation center in White City and talk to a veteran who had been in a war to ask a question about a particular moment in that war.

Each year, a notable person is chosen as the subject for several of the questions, which usually numbers around 50. Facts about this person, referred to as a “dedicatee,” are valuable. For example, if you can track down the date and the price of the last recorded transfer of title for the house the dedicatee built for his family but had to vacate, you’ll get three points. And since the words “had to vacate” are in bold, you can earn extra points by naming the reason they had to vacate.

Documentation is required to receive points. According to the official rules, one source is acceptable “if the answer matches the official answer and the documentation refers to all of the bold portion(s) of the question,” but many questions will require multiple sources. Sources are highly scrutinized and many, including interviews and YouTube videos, are not allowed. Also out of bounds for research are crowdsourcing and “Ask” sites.

After every team’s answers have been submitted, the contest enters the adjudication phase. Usually, all the teams would gather in the Rogue River room in SOU’s Stevenson Union, but this year’s adjudication will be conducted via Zoom.

Basically, each team will evaluate the answers and citations submitted by other teams and also hear how other teams have judged their answers and citations. Teams must then decide whether to accept each score or argue their case in an effort to gain points.

One day is set aside for the adjudication, not even close to enough time to analyze every answer and source. Instead, Impara selects which questions to look at.

“And it’s typically because either none of them got their answer right, so he wants to give them an opportunity to defend their answer, or he’ll want to review why half of them got it right but the other half didn’t,” Gosnell said. “So, it’s usually, ‘Let’s figure it out, let’s dig deeper. Why did you not get the right answer on this question.’ So it becomes another opportunity for learning.”

Last year, more than 275 students representing 13 middle schools participated in the scavenger hunt competition. Scenic Middle School took first place in Division B by earning 154 points out of a possible 259, and Logos Charter School of Medford placed first in Division A by earning 249 points of a possible 259. Logos Charter also won the 2020 high school competition, earning 318 points to edge Ashland (317).

Steve Boyarsky, a former educator who served as the superintendent of the Southern Oregon Educational Service District before retiring in 2009, brought the scavenger hunt to the Rogue Valley after he saw the Bay Area’s version during a year-long sabbatical in 1982. There, it’s called the Millard Fillmore Memorial Scavenger Hunt, named after the 13th president of the United States.

“I observed it and thought, we could do that back here (in Southern Oregon),” said Boyarsky, who still lends a hand in the competition, this year as a judge. “So when I came back from the sabbatical the next school year (1983), we started it up with a handful of schools and a handful of teachers that I knew.”

Boyarsky added a middle-school competition in 1998. He’s proud of what it’s become and the opportunity it provides for students looking for ways to stretch themselves intellectually.

“Kids tell me that they’ve learned more about research and how to document things by doing the scavenger hunt than they had learned up until that point,” he said, “because it’s very rigorous and very technical and they really have to pay attention to detail. What they tell me is, ‘I know more about how to find the truth than most adults do.’”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Students from local middle schools compete in a puzzle challenge during the 2019 State of Jefferson Academic Scavenger Hunt at Southern Oregon University. (photo courtesy of SOU Youth Programs).