Professor uses Scavenger Hunt to Engage Students

Bruce Kubicka and Mariko McMurtry completing an activity at Beebe Dam.

Most educators know that it is hard to engage students through a virtual format, but one professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering found a creative solution.

Introductory Fluid Mechanics is taught by Professor Brian Kirby and is a favorite among mechanical engineering majors. The course describes the flow of fluids like air and water and describes the forces they generate to lift a plane in the air or move water through a pipe.

Kirby is known for his captivating lectures and jokes that land with Gen Z, which can be a great feat for many professors. In the fall of 2020, he was faced with the challenge of engaging his students in a virtual format.

Introductory Fluid Mechanics normally consists of in-class lectures and demos of fluid mechanical systems. Kirby pivoted his normal in-class plans by recording videos of his demos set to the golden age of hip-hop and creating asynchronous activities. The hip-hop soundtrack was an ode to the time when he was learning fluid mechanics as a student. The activities aimed to gamify the class and create a steady stream of student participation on a social media-like platform all centered on fluid mechanics. 

Kirby created a semester-long fluid mechanics scavenger hunt that encouraged students to complete activities and submit pictures and videos of their discoveries, resulting in over 1,000 student interactions.

Left: Professor Kirby’s hydraulic jump demo video.  Right: student submission of a hydraulic jump
Left: Professor Kirby’s hydraulic jump demo video.  Right: student submission of a hydraulic jump

“It just seemed like teaching during COVID was going to be depressing with me lecturing in a space suit and everyone 6 feet apart in a mask,” Kirby says. “If I couldn’t see the students smile in person at least I wanted some pictures of them smiling. And I want the students to see that the physics of fluid mechanics pervades our everyday life.”

In addition to Kirby’s personal leanings, this approach is inspired by research in recent decades in affective neuroscience, which identifies searching and expectancy as among the most forceful positive driving emotions and most closely attached to learning and retention.

Kirby used a web-based platform to create a scavenger hunt that was easily accessible via students’ mobile devices. Each week, he created 5-10 tasks in the app, which students then accessed and completed on their phones. The tasks ranged from finding a piece of heavy equipment with a hydraulic actuator to playing an outdoor sport or game that involves fluid mechanics. Students worked in teams to complete the tasks and submitted picture or video proof in the app. Many of the tasks encouraged students to find examples in their everyday life of topics covered in class demos.

Noah Fox spotted this piece of heavy equipment with a hydraulic actuator behind Anabel Taylor Hall for one of the activities.
Noah Fox spotted this piece of heavy equipment with a hydraulic actuator behind Anabel Taylor Hall for one of the activities.


“I thought the scavenger hunt was a great method to engage students in a completely virtual education, and it allowed us to pair the fluid dynamic concepts from class with physical examples in our everyday life,” says Rachel Lore ’22. “For example, one scavenger hunt task was to find a jellyfish vape trick video to visualize the flow caused by a vortex ring.”

Not only did the scavenger hunt help students understand the fluid mechanics curriculum in a new and interesting way, it got students out of their apartments in a time when most people were glued to their computer screens.

“Frankly, it worked better than I could have imagined,” said Kirby. ”For me it created a social media platform I could engage in that was exclusively students talking about and showing each other what they were learning.”

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