On university campuses, pairs of journalism students look for 10 items to complete their scavenger hunt, including school spirit, little-known facts and fanatic fans.
They ask someone a question, snap a photo, and publish their quotes and photos on Twitter using class hashtags to organize their work.
“If you have only 140 characters, you need to make every word count for something," said Aaron Geiger, a graduate student studying print journalism at West Virginia University. "And if you’re going to attach a picture to that, then it needs to be something somewhat engaging, especially if it’s coming from kind of a low-grade camera phone.”
Welcome to the Twitter Scavenger Hunt, a friendly competition started by the University of Memphis. Over the past week and a half, five classes across the country have found the 10 items on their list, and two others will start soon.
But this hunt involves more than interviewing and taking photos. Through the hunt, students share information on Twitter, discover the value of building communities and interact with journalists at other universities.
“It was just eye-opening to see how one little project like the scavenger hunt connected us, and we’ve just been networking with these other students like we’ve been friends forever,” said Nicole Blum, a senior majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Memphis.
The other students come from journalism classes at West Virginia, Drury (Springfield, Mo.), Lehigh (Bethlehem, Pa.) and Indiana universities, along with the University of Oregon.
But their professors have a common connection: the University of Missouri. Five of them went through the School of Journalism together, and the other two attended the university.
“We’re just kind of this younger group of professors in our field — all of us untenured — who are trying to figure out ways to move us forward in terms of curriculum,” said Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University.
Since he started working at the university a few years ago, he designed a multimedia reporting class, and colleague Bob Britten created a blogging and interactive journalism class at West Virginia University.
Through the Twitter Scavenger Hunt, these professors connect their classes virtually.
“For a program like ours that didn’t do anything in multimedia before, this actually really gets a sense of excitement going in the department, which is part of the reason I do stuff like this," Littau said. "It’s as much a learning opportunity as it is a stunt.”
Through the scavenger hunt, associate professor Carrie Brown-Smith wanted her undergraduate social media class to understand how to build communities through tools such as Twitter. Building a community takes time, but because other universities joined the hunt that she organized, the students sped up the process.
“It actually went even better than I thought," Brown-Smith said. "I wasn’t really sure how well they were going to take to it or how much whining I would get.” I was really surprised — they actually seemed like they had a good time."
The little-known facts became three of the professors' favorite scavenger hunt items. Both professors and students discovered interesting trivia that helped them learn more about their university as well as the other universities involved in the hunt.
For example, the inventor of the escalator went to Lehigh University, but the campus doesn't have escalators on campus, said junior Preston McClellan, a public relations major at the University of Memphis. The social media class doesn't feel like a class because he does things he'd probably be doing anyway, such as tweeting.
“It’s very cool to go out and do something real," McClellan said. "I'm not sitting in a classroom writing a paper about Twitter, I’m doing Twitter.”
Through his work in sports information at the university, he tweets for the golf program. And through the scavenger hunt, he interacted with two students at Lehigh University who work in sports information.
“We’re a thousand miles away, but because of Twitter we can connect that way," McClellan said. "That never would have happened without social media.”
Even though they were miles away, everyone felt connected to each other, said Blum, the broadcast journalism student. And through the scavenger hunt, she realized that social media is easy to use, but we rarely take advantage of it. We usually just post, "having a bad day" or "going to the mall," but it can be used for so much more.
“We all just learned that it is really useful in the profession that we chose to study because it’s so easy to access and navigate that it’s really not just a personal thing," Blum said. "It can really be used as a tool for reporting and getting information out to a large group of people.”
Students need to mobilize their networks, wield them like a tool and make connections with other people, said Bob Britten, an assistant professor at West Virginia University. His undergraduate and graduate students have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but how many times do they ask them a concrete question?
When he came up with the idea to create a blogging and interactive journalism class, he had no idea where to start. He asked his friends on Facebook, and 30 people responded. Some people who commented were casually interested, and others were journalism school friends.
"It impressed on me that we have these huge networks, and we don’t really do anything with them beyond personal entertainment," Britten said, "and yet the whole nature of the social Web is connecting people.”
Last year, he couldn't have done a scavenger hunt like this because not even half of the class had smart phones. But this year, the students had enough smart phones to pair up with those who didn't.
On the day Britten paired everyone up, two graduate students missed class, and neither one of them had a smart phone. So Geiger and his partner made the project work with his cell phone.
“I like the challenge because I like to be resourceful," he said, "and I also like to be frugal.”
He enjoyed taking on the challenge. But the cell phone also limited him. He had to take a picture with his phone, text it to his e-mail, go to his e-mail, log into the sites and post it.
Geiger, McClellan and Blum all said that students were more willing to talk to them because they used a phone and Twitter instead of a video camera and notepad. They got more of a real response and didn't see much hesitation when they asked people a quick question.
People probably don't see Twitter as a viable news source yet, and they don't think others will see their pictures and quotes, McClellan and Blum said.
But a lot of people did see their quotes and pictures. As soon as the journalism students posted something for the scavenger hunt, others would retweet and respond, said Kirk Auvil, a junior journalism major at West Virginia University.
The University of Memphis kicked off the hunt on February 3, and four other classes joined in the next week. The Indiana University and the second Drury University class haven't started yet.
“The only limitation that we had was that not all universities were doing it at the same time," he said, "but even that managed to produce some interesting results because the people who had already done it were waiting and just instantly leapt upon the people who were currently doing it.”
Students from other universities opened up a fun dialogue between all the schools, and Auvil would like to do the scavenger hunt again.
As for the competition part of the hunt, the professors will figure out the judging criteria and who will judge soon. But no matter who wins, students and professors at the universities have learned lessons and made connections that will help them in their careers.
The professors have talked about doing collaborative projects down the road so their students can work together, Britten said.
“After going through this week," Britten said, "it really makes me want to do more things like this because it’s just so different than any other project we’ve done to this point.”