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U. of C. Scavenger Hunt tests students' brain power

  • Andy Jordan (center) judging Item 264 from last year: "Kings Landing and The Twins are all right, I guess, but wed rather see something a little more neo-Gothic. Produce a map of the U of C campus that when triggered erects a clockwork version of a campus building of your choice. [175 points]"
Andy Jordan (center) judging Item 264 from last year: "Kings Landing…
May 07, 2013|By Tony Peregrin | For RedEye

Students gathered at the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall on Wednesday just before the stroke of midnight will be fizzy with excitement as they await the release of this year’s list for what the Guinness Book of World Records has deemed the world’s largest scavenger hunt.

The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt , or as the students call it “Scav,” “Scav Hunt” or simply “the Hunt,” involves teams competing to acquire, build, design, eat, locate, perform, program and endure approximately 300 items off a master “list.” Each item is assigned a point value and is evaluated by a panel of judges, including this year’s chief judge or “scavenczar,” student Andy Jordan.

Some of the items on the list are fairly standard for a scavenger hunt, although each task, no matter how simple, requires some modicum of brain power—like No. 110 from the 2012 list: “Draw a QR code on a chalkboard or sidewalk that links to your team’s website [7 points].” Other tasks are more challenging, like No. 210: “Bring your appendix in a jar [34 points],” No. 293: “Get a meeting with the mayor of Chicago [25 points]” or No. 319: “Make wine in three days [12 points].”

Jordan, 21, a fourth year economics major, said he was aware of the Hunt long before he arrived at U. of C.

“Oh, I was very enthusiastic about it. You know those books where they rank the top 125 or 500 universities—they typically mention this big scavenger hunt [for the U of C],” he said. “When I read the past lists, I thought it all sounded very cool, and I knew I wanted to be a part of this.”

Outside of academia, The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt has been the subject of a recent article published in the New Yorker, and at least one documentary, “The Hunt” (2002).

Jordan recalled one task his team, Max Palevsky, (named after the residence hall), accomplished in 2010, back in his pre-scavenczar days. The task, No. 42, read: “Maybe we wouldn't be the school ‘where the squirrels are more aggressive than the guys’ if we had more diurnal raptors around. Get a fully trained NAFA member to show his stuff on campus. [37 points]”

“Diurnal is the opposite of nocturnal,” said Jordan matter-of-factly. “And we managed to find a raptor, a Golden Eagle, which we had perched in the back of an SUV as we drove onto campus. It was pretty cool.”

Last year’s list was the longest in Scav history, topping out at 351 items. This year’s list is, of course, a closely guarded secret until the big reveal in the predawn hours Thursday. Jordan good-naturedly casts aside any questions regarding particulars of the 2013 list.

“What I can say,” he said after a brief, dramatic pause, “is that this year’s list is more mysterious than ever. And it’s one of the better lists in terms of quality.”

This year, eight major teams and three small teams, according to Jordan, have registered for the Hunt— a four-day event that includes a blood drive, an optional road trip and the Scav Olympics (an athletic event with spectators). Proving Scav is more than collecting body parts in jars or borrowing birds of prey, the blood drive serves as the single largest intake of blood by University hospitals, and in 2012 the number of donations topped 150. Anyone who donates blood during the Hunt may sign their name to give credit to a particular team.

As is the case in previous years, Judgment Day is Mother’s Day, “since our mothers are all judgmental,” according to the Scav website. Up to 30 judges, including undergrads and alumni who fly back to Chicago to participate in judging, are charged with determining a winning team. Judges and others who determined the content of the secret lists are known as “Hot Side Hot,” while organizers who help plan the Hunt without becoming a judge are known as “Cold Side Cold.” This nomenclature was inspired by the McDonald’s McDLT commercial of the ‘80s featuring “Seinfeld” actor Jason Alexander and the double-wide Styrofoam container that kept the burger hot, and the toppings cool.

The University of Chicago has always been known as an institution that lets its nerd-flag flap happily in the wind and that is perhaps most evident during the annual U. of C. Hunt. Virtually every year’s Hunt features tales and lore of extraordinary demonstrations of mental power, but perhaps the most famous of these is from the ’99 Hunt, when two physics majors, Justin Kasper and Fred Niell, built a working nuclear breeder reactor in a Burton-Judson dorm room by converting thorium powder from vacuum tubes into uranium. (A nuclear physicist reportedly vouched for the device’s authenticity.)

“It’s a point a pride for a lot of people who self-identify as nerds,” said Jordan, when asked about the university’s reputation for attracting brainiacs. “If you come here you are going to be pushed to the limit, and if you’re not a nerd, you won’t enjoy it as much.” 

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