Phew! Tired but happy.
A couple of months ago I was asked to run a day activity for a group of 15-year olds from Barnsley, as part of the university’s widening participation scheme.
How to teach fifty 15-year olds about university life in 5 hours and keep them entertained enough to avoid them interfering with the degree ceremonies going on elsewhere on campus? I borrowed a few approaches from alternate reality games, principally live events (example here) and a broad mix of media. Over a good day’s brainstorming with Kate (Litherland, a research associate from my last arg-influenced project) fuelled by coffee, cake and (for the really tricky parts) beer, we came up with PuzzleX: The Quest for Truth.
Essentially, we planned to teach the schoolkids what most undergraduates fail to grasp before their third year: a healthy academic cynicism for the published word/image, and an ability to peel back the covers and delve deeper. This was to be no lecture series, though: the schoolkids would become Puzzle Teams, working against the clock to solve a variety of different challenges, then producing their evidence in a dossier in a final frenetic showdown.
And, well, it worked rather… erm… well. At 10:00 sharp a Mission Impossible-meets-Jack Bauer opening sequence drew the Puzzle Teams in, and set them off on their first challenge of the day (the first mission dossiers were hidden under six random seats in the 200-seat theatre). Aided by black-clad Puzzle Agents (a fabulous team of postgrads) and under pressure from constant countdown timers above their heads in each mission room, seven Puzzle Teams were to be found (at various times) measuring themselves up against the tallest building on campus, furtively listening to recorded messages and shortly after wiring up the sound of flushing toilets or crowded cafés, making 3D camels, and trying to catch out fictitious online MySpace fraudsters. All in the Quest for Truth.
Most impressive of all was the work the teams put in at the end to record all their evidence in a Wiki: in less that 45 minutes, some groups produced 6-page illustrated guides which would put much undergraduate work to shame. Boring subject? Not when it involves problem solving, collaboration, a good story and a healthy splash of fun.
I’ve questioned the motivation and understanding of undergraduates twice in the above post. But are we teaching them these skills in the right way? Barnsley’s 15-year olds might have an answer.