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Getting Your Ducks in a Row

How a scavenger hunt is transforming a high-stress college environment into a fun, accessible atmosphere

The stress of engineering school is just enough to make anyone quack

Chemical and petroleum engineering students at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering are immersed in a challenging and rigorous environment from day one. They’re required to take 131 credits that include the most natural science classes in addition to their math and engineering courses. Put simply, these students have a heavy workload.

When Emily Kerr accepted her latest position as undergraduate student advisor and instructor of the undergraduate seminar for the School’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum of Engineering, she wanted to reduce student burn-out and use a holistic approach in advising and mentoring her students. 

“The major question was, how can we set the student as a whole up for success, and not just the engineer,” Kerr said. “We needed to find a way to inject some levity into a high pressure environment.”

Pitt’s Duck Dynasty

Her solution? Creating a scavenger hunt throughout Benedum Hall, home of Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. Kerr was inspired by Taryn Bayles, Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, who hid Easter eggs around the engineering school last spring. Bayles is also Vice Chair for Undergraduate Engineering and nationally recognized for her research in chemical engineering pedagogy.

At the start of the spring semester, Kerr began to hide hundreds of multi-colored, miniature plastic ducks throughout Benedum Hall. Each time a student returns a duck, they earn a “duck buck,” granting them the opportunity to earn prizes at the end of the semester.

Participation in the duck hunt isn’t required for the undergraduate seminar, but the level of student enthusiasm has proven the long-term duck hunt to be a success. Just over one month into the semester, sophomore and junior students are hunting the ducks down as if their final grade depends on it. Duck hunting teams are popping up, makeshift bartering systems are being formed, and elaborate pictures are being staged once a duck is found. One student is even knitting tiny scarves for each duck they find.

Now more than ever, according to Kerr, students in the undergraduate seminar are spending time on the chemical engineering floor, not only to see if they can catch Kerr hiding the next batch of ducks, but to study and take advantage of the workspaces provided to them.

“This may just be a scavenger hunt, but it’s also a fun team building activity that creates a sense of community among the class,” emphasized Kerr. “I want our students to understand that their instructors, advisors and workspaces in Benedum Hall are accessible resources to them. The more they’re here outside of class, the more comfortable they’ll feel knocking on my door or going to office hours for a class they might be struggling with.”