Chasing Life

One of the unique aspects of Buettner’s quests is that, at the end of most days, kids from classrooms around the world get to vote on what the expedition team will do next. “The quest all of a sudden tells a twelve-year-old for the first time in his life that he is in charge. He gets to solve this mystery. We want the kids’ ideas and research and imagination, and a Ph.D. archeologist will listen to what they tell him to do. That’s enormously empowering. That in a nutshell is why they work; kids have control over the learning environment.”

Outside magazine writer Stephanie Pearson was part of quests to Australia and Central America, and she knows from firsthand experience how to get kids interested. “I had a scorpion run across my face, I had to find, gather, and eat wasp larvae, which was a local delicacy, and I had to simulate a shark bite with ketchup,” she said. It was all part of a not surprisingly popular feature called “Gross and Disgusting” that she oversaw.

Despite these appeals to kids’ fascination with the gross and disgusting, Buettner bristles at an obvious comparison—to reality TV shows like Survivor and Fear Factor. “I happen to know how those shows are put together,” he said. “They hire soap-opera writers and they shoot a ton of footage. Then a soap-opera writer takes segments and lines them up in a soap-opera type story arc; they lead you on one path. They intentionally create a fiend and a hero. I cringe when I see Survivor is going to Guatemala, site of the MayaQuest, because it’s completely false. The people who participated in MayaQuest, on the other hand, they were the world’s top Mayanists, and they shaped everything we did.”

Buettner admits that his quests use devices like character exposition to introduce the team to the online audience and cliffhangers to maintain interest. “But our conflicts and resolutions are real: If a team member gets bit by a poisonous stingray, it really happened,” he said. “Or maybe there is just one team member who absolutely isn’t working out, so we have to kick her off. Our satellite equipment fails on us. Somebody gets malaria. It’s not like Survivor that makes this all up. But you do need to use storytelling techniques to keep people engaged.”

Buettner sees his quests as the antithesis of passive TV watching, saying they encourage kids to engage in critical thinking and to come to their own conclusions, about themselves and their world. By looking at the Anasazi or the Mayans and how their cultures flourished but ultimately collapsed, he says, the quests help students see how a society’s relationship with the environment is critical to its survival; but it does so without preaching or spoon-feeding them a conclusion. “Anybody who knows kids knows, if you tell a kid to do something, you get one level of understanding, but if you can create the environment for them to figure it out for themselves, that is five times more powerful,” Buettner said. Ultimately, the students are indirectly studying themselves and their own society. “The beauty of looking at these ancient civilizations is they provide a mirror. Self assessment is often too painful; it’s too painful to see what’s going on with us right now.”

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