We Had Too Much Time On Our Hands

a/k/a SLV Scav


So recall that I snapped back in September. I would show my students videos of someone doing something awesome (for instance) and if that thing required more than seven minutes of sustained effort, my students would slag the person for “having no life” or “having too much much time on her hands.” Those remarks burned me pretty bad. I took personal offense but, more than that, I really wanted my students to become the sort of people who would put hard work into interesting tasks.

At the same time, I had some of the previous year’s students wandering back into my room like migratory butterflies. They were bored. I missed them. One lunch period I said, “I’m thinking of a senior who’s taking yearbook class and has five siblings. Who can find that student first?”

It took London twenty-two minutes.

I stepped my game up. “How many yes/no questions would it take to carve the entire campus down to one student?” I put a student in my head. It took London fourteen questions. Sandy took thirteen. These kids were unreal.

I taped an index card to the bottom of a bus seat and gave them a photo.

It took Sandy two weeks (following one near miss) to track down the bus and retrieve the card.

This went on for a month or two until I asked London and Sandy and Wayne to help me take this thing – whatever it was – to the entire campus.

The Goal

David Milch:

I’m doing what I can to tell stories which engage those issues in ways which can engage the imagination so that people don’t feel threatened by it.

This seems dead on to me. Imagination can be threatening and scary if you aren’t accustomed to doing something with it. It seemed necessary to trigger the imagination of my students slowly, with progressively harder challenges, so that they’d reach the hardest challenge with confidence and competence, thinking to themselves three things:

  1. Oh my word, I’m awesome.
  2. Oh my word, the people I go to school with are awesome.
  3. Oh my word, the place where I live is awesome.

I wanted to see two hundred students register for the first challenge (approximately 25% of the student body) and one hundred finish the final challenge.

The Process

We conducted covert board meetings in Gmail. We shared a spreadsheet in Docs. We brainstormed and whittled thirty challenges down to twelve over five months. We involved nobody else except Andy Schmitz, who did a fantastic job translating my Photoshop mockups into a functioning website. Someone hire him for something that pays.

We marketed each challenge with an audio bulletin in the morning announcements and with twenty-five handbills posted around campus. We also had a Facebook group. Naturally.

Grand Prize

None. This was subject to a lot of debate early in the planning process. Ultimately, we wanted to see contestants doing interesting things for little more incentive than the thrill of doing interesting things.

We did assign points to challenges and we kept a running scoreboard for both individuals and classes (ie. “Are the freshmen beating the seniors?” etc.). Andy rigged the scoreboard to track ranking movement a lá Billboard’s music charts. (ie. “Marco Polo rose 17 rankings in the charts today.”) These efforts were all well received by the contestants.

The Twelve Challenges

We gave students between two and five days for each challenge. In sum, the challenges lasted the month of May.

1. Do You Know Your Twins

We took photos of all the twins on campus and asked the contestants to tell them apart.

2. When You Were Young

London and Sandy tracked down yearbooks from the elementary school. We posted the third grade photo for a boy and a girl from each high school class and asked the contestants to identify them.

3. The Day The Teachers Disappeared

Taking a page out of the Filmwise playbook, we asked ten teachers for a personal photo and then I disappeared them using a lot of detailed brushwork in Photoshop. (There isn’t an easy way to do this one.)

4. Name That Student Schedule

We posted the class schedule for one student from every class and had contestants identify the students. This one led to some disruption, I’m told, with NB bursting into a first period world history class to interrogate students en masse. Sorry, teacher buds.

5. They Did WHAT?!

We solicited a single strange biographical fact from ten teachers and had contestants match teachers to facts.

6. Name That Student Venn

“Name the student who has the most common last name on campus, who also throws the discus, and who also plays in the jazz band.” Ten items like that. We tripped up certain frontrunners by including complements in the Venn diagrams.

7. SLV Snipe Hunt

We gave out ten yellow shirts to members of the study body and teaching faculty. We labeled each of the shirts with a letter from A through J. Contestants had two days to hunt the snipes down. We intensified the hunt by giving credit only to the first twenty people to bag a snipe. After that, the snipe was useless to the contestant.

8. Debrief

Pause for breath. A brief survey with questions about the scav, questions about who you were friends with as a little kid, and one bit where we asked students to design their ideal school schedule full of electives taught by anybody from anywhere in the world. (“Do they have to be alive?” a contestant asked via e-mail.)

Here are a few examples:

  • Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson
  • Dance, Chris Brown
  • Drama, Taylor Lautner
  • How to Make Awesome 80s Movies, John Hughes
  • Egyptology, Dr. Zahi Hawass
  • Marine Biology, Craig Carlson (PhD)
  • Potions, Snape
  • Drumming 101, Neil Peart
  • Writing Like Terry Pratchett, Terry Pratchett
  • Photography, Astrid Kirchherr

9. Name That Student Survey

Andy built this one out so that one contestant would receive another contestant’s survey from the previous challenge, now anonymous, and have to determine that contestant’s identity. They could do this for as many surveys as were submitted in the last challenge, but you couldn’t ever change your answer once you submitted it so be careful.

10. Points For Pints

At this point, we figured we had a certain crowd of students hooked on the competition and we wanted to turn them out for the benefit of humanity. Contestants could either donate blood in the school blood drive (nice timing, administrator buds) or they could tell us a story and attach a photo describing something amazing and awesome and kind that they did for someone they didn’t know.

11. Photo Bomb

Contestants could photo bomb select students, teachers, district officials, and county representatives, with points awarded on a sliding scale of difficulty. The points maxed out with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and I was convinced two particular contestants had designs to team up and take him down.

12. Olde SLV

I went to the university library and secured some vintage photos of our school’s rural town. We found some old-timey photos of our school, also, like before they chopped down that enormous oak to make room for the new library. That sort of thing. Contestants had to take a modern picture from the same angle and location for points. Only one contestant answered this challenge.

Data & Analysis

  • 179 users registered. 112 students completed the first challenge. 1 student completed the last challenge. So there you go.
  • The median contestant completed two challenges.
  • 7 of my 46 students signed up. One of them completed four challenges; the rest were one-offs.
  • This chart describes the number of students completing each of the twelve challenges:
  • There were two males in the top twenty contestants. There were none in the top ten. (My campus is 52% male, by comparison.) I have no idea what to make of that right there.
  • This chart describes the final class ranking.

Faculty Reaction

Surprisingly low key. The heat I thought I’d take over student privacy (it’s a website after all! ooga booga!) never materialized. If it had, I would have pointed out that a student ID was required to access the site, which meant the whole thing was locked down at least as tightly as the school yearbook.

Obvious Blunders

  • Maybe this was poorly timed at the end of the school year. I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
  • We offered a referral credit on the second challenge. Get someone new to sign on. If they put your name down as a referral, you both scored 50 extra points. We should have had that offer running the entire time.
  • We didn’t do anything to build a community out of the competitors. Apart from submitting a response and checking your score, there wasn’t any reason to visit the site. We should have released every student answer after each individual challenge ended. We should have added comments also.
  • We should have had better, more inspiring challenges, but what can you do, right?

Less Obvious Blunders

  • I’m sure you can help me out with this.


I’m obliged to:

I’m really glad we did this. We fell way short of my expectations, but it’s hard to reconcile that fact with the wide grin on my face when I think back on the whole thing.

BTW: Andy Schmitz has posted a technical rundown of the site alongside generous samples of code.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. One thing that comes to mind is that UChicago Scav and MIT Mystery Hunt are *team* activities – there’s a lot of bonding and social stuff that goes into the making-something-awesome. I wonder if encouraging teams would work here?

  2. Now see, this is the kind of idea I can do something with! But what if I’m not smart enough to design a website that does all of these things?

    I’m thinking I could use a google doc to do that survey thing.

    This could be a great welcome back to school idea. Or even a competition that runs all year long!

    Our students would love this kind of competition between classes.

    Some of these things wouldn’t work so well in a tiny school, but I think I can make this happen.

  3. Wondering how well this could translate into primary (elementary) school. I Can’t wait to find out!!

  4. Pretty sure seeing the website would cross the privacy line he just mentioned up there. (Which is too bad, because I’d love to see it too.)

  5. @Abby, really solid suggestion there. We needed some kind of unit between “individual” and “entire class.”

    @Anne, what Josh G. said. This is as far as I can take y’all without disrespecting the law or my students’ privacy or both.

  6. Awesome. I’ve got two months now to cook something like this up for my elementary students. We get a lot of new students each year because of our gifted program. This might be a great kickoff for the school year.

  7. I have never heard of a school-based scavenger hunt, and I’ve never heard of one which went on for more than a day.
    I know I’m going to sound like a Philistine, but as I was reading this I kept wondering, “why?”.
    Please enlighten me (kindly!).

  8. @Debbie Please re-read the first paragraph. The purpose is to experience the joy of a sustained effort; or at the very least to not disrespect those who do engage in effortful fun.

  9. Dan, another fun and inspiring idea! Entries like this one are why I enjoy reading your blog. Many times after I read it I am inspired to try something new or share the idea with colleagues. Like many good intentions, usually real life interferes. But for one brief and shining moment…..

  10. Debbie, I have never heard of a school-based scavenger hunt, and I’ve never heard of one which went on for more than a day. I know I’m going to sound like a Philistine, but as I was reading this I kept wondering, “why?”.

    If the appeal of the thing isn’t plain, I don’t think I can conjure an explanation that’ll clarify it. Certainly, much of our student body had the same reaction you did.

    Sinead, Do you think you will run it again next year?

    That’s our intent, though the fact that I’ll be studying in graduate school two hours away may complicate it.

  11. dan – tell me that 04:52:08 is a countdown and not the time you were up in the morning!!

  12. Awesome! Seriously want to try this. My small town in Oregon would be a great location for it to. My mind is already racing.

    Suggestion of a ‘less-obvious error’: Move the yellow-shirt target challenge up in the list. It’s visible advertising for the scavenger hunt, and males are more likely to be interested by it then by looking at photos of twins (esp. girls) and trying to tell them apart. Males of that age just aren’t visually observant enough… but they’d notice a target.

  13. I think an easy motivator here would be nothing individual, but purely for the classes. Get a trophy (a nice tall one would be, what, $50 tops?), and give it to the winning class. Now, it might be that nobody cares. Fine. But if even 20 students from competing classes do care (and your numbers support that you at least had that many participate), all of a sudden there’s something there. Put the trophy on display. Engrave their names in it. Stick a page in the yearbook. Make it their legacy. I would bet on there being more than 1 person in the last challenge if this were the case.

  14. Cathy Campbell

    June 25, 2010 - 7:56 pm -

    Wow, would I have loved this as a student! The challenge and fun while doing this would be motivation enough for me.

    I think a scavenger hunt like this in a school at the beginning of the year would be perfect. Instead of diving right into curriculum I believe it is important to build a community of learners. If we expect students to collaborate and persevere solving problems we need to help them get to know each other so they can trust members in a group and be open to taking risks.

  15. This is good stuff. I wish my high school had something fun like this. Have you heard of SCVNGR? It’s a scavenger hunt making application online, and you can make cell phone-based hunts. It’s pretty neat stuff. There are also Android and iPhone apps devoted to it, so you can pay mobile versions!

  16. This flipping rocks. I read this and kept wishing I were there! I, too, kept thinking of elementary applications….especially at the beginning of the school year to build community. Teams could be classrooms. It would be great because our school is so big (grades 2-4, 5-6 teachers per grade level)…it’d really bring our student body together.

    Hmmm…now to think up challenges….

    Thanks as always for sharing, Dan. I love how generous you are with sharing these bits of brilliance.

  17. We spent a lot of time this last week of school talking about engaging students and building up a community this coming september and this idea seems like an awesome way to keep kids busy and motivated and (like you said) engaged in school life! I am so in and now brainstorming other teachers/students and challenges for our school in the new year.
    Thanks for the great idea!

    Did you get students to submit via GoogleDocs or email or facebook?

    I was thinking maybe for some of the challenges (like photobombs), that after submission that you make up a slideshow of the photos and get all the contestants (and anyone else who wants to see them) gathered at lunch one day to watch. Or (at my school at least) get them put up on the video monitors during the day…

  18. Another thought I just had: our school just changed our website to a Moodle site, so to circumvent the issue/problem that some people may have to make a website, then we could make a “class” on moodle for the hunt and get kids to submit via that (if admin oks it…hmmm).

  19. This seems pretty close to the ARG stuff I’ve seen done (at least the stuff that’s done well). Between the narrative aspects of the WCYDWT franchise and this it’s seems like you’ve got the essential elements.

    I’ve seen the ARG stuff butchered in the name of education. I’d like to see it done well.

    Any thoughts down that line?

  20. I’m really surprised to see so much enthusiasm from the elementary ed crowd. It makes sense, though. They could access a much wider range of challenges than my high school students (who are, mostly, more competent than elementary schoolers) and they would see higher participation rates (since their students are, mostly, less cynical than mine).

    Y’all let me know how that goes.

    @Jazo, good tip on SCVNGR. I need to look into that. Certainly, it’d be nice to work mobile access into the project.

    Amanda: Did you get students to submit via GoogleDocs or email or facebook?

    Neither. Andy Schmitz homebrewed a solution for me. Both of those options sound good to me, though. Moodle, even better.

    @Tom, I know so little about ARG, I’m hesitant to claim the label for this scavenger hunt.

  21. Katherine Baldwin

    June 29, 2010 - 10:31 am -

    Have you ever looked into Destination Imagination? It is a national nonprofit program that promotes creativity, team work, and problem solving. It has “instant challenges” that I think you would enjoy. I love your website. Thanks!

  22. This is GOLD! I know several schools that could benefit from this. I work in private industry and I planned a scavenger hunt in our multi-story building once. Everyone loved it, and still talks about it to this day.

    In your opinion, what factor did competition play in the participation in your challenges?

    So, you say you only had girls in the top ten?

  23. David: In your opinion, what factor did competition play in the participation in your challenges?

    The students I interviewed were motivated by class loyalty. (ie. “I just want the sophomores to win.”) Many would share answers for their friends to submit to improve their class standing even at the expense of their own individual standing.

    Abby suggests we create teams that could serve as an intermediate grouping between “entire class” and “single individual.” I think she’s right on.

  24. Interesting. I know that class loyalty is encouraged in High School (pep rally, dress-up days, etc). I guess the students have a long standing personal investment in their class and want to see it do well. Intermediate groupings wouldn’t have that long standing investment and would need to “gel” around something else.

  25. This is great. It blows the one I did out of the water. But the good news is you inspired me to finally put my ideas down for others to see. So I started a blog, wrote a post and put my Pirate Math Adventure (a bulletin board driven scavenger hunt) out there. I never really had a place to start until I read this post (out of the tons of great ones I have read).


    The link is towards the end of the post.

  26. @dougsnyder

    Dan –

    Love the Scavenger Hunt idea! Did you do anything to tie this to the math curriculum for your students? And any plans to try this again? If so, what would you do the same or differently?


  27. This is amazing! As I was reading this post I thought there was no way that you would not reach your goal of student participation. It sounds like so much fun. Was it disappointing to you that the turn out was not what you thought it would be? Will you be doing this again, and will there be a prize the next time?