A Quest for Knowledge


Mary Teague Mason

School districts have poured large quantities of money into the purchase of technology for students and teachers. But have new computers and software led to student academic achievement? Harold Wenglinsky, a researcher at Educational Testing Service, states, “Technology, indeed can have positive benefits. But those benefits depend on how the technology is used.”1 A study by Wenglinsky concluded that eighth-grade students in classes where computers were used for higher-order activities, such as application and simulation, performed better on tests of math knowledge than did students who had been in classes where computers were used for drill and practice.2 Students also achieved higher scores when their teachers had participated in professional training in the use of computers. The study also showed that, just because students had spent time on computers, they did not necessarily improve their test scores.

What do these results have to say to social studies teachers? As we look over software and sites on the World Wide Web, searching for material to use in the classroom, we might do well to favor activities that engage students in higher-order thinking. One example of such an activity, found at www.classroom.com, is the interactive Quest, as led by Dan Buettner, mountain biker extraordinaire, and his team of “adventurers.”3 Teachers across the United States and in several other countries have been “touring” with
Dan over the last five years in his various explorations (AsiaQuest, MayaQuest, AfricaQuest, and GalapagosQuest). For example, in AsiaQuest, occurring during the fall of 1999, students can follow the daily progress of the travelers as they retrace Marco Polo’s probable route along China’s Silk Road.4 Participating classrooms are invited to communicate with the adventurers, help make decisions about their itinerary, solve problems encountered by the travelers, and “meet” children who live in the areas along the route of the Quest.

During the expedition, students practice skills used by historians, archaeologists, geographers, and sociologists. There are direct ties to other disciplines, such as science, language arts, math, health, and physical education. The students construct their own questions, which can then be answered by the adventure team or by a host of on-line experts who are ready to help solve some of “the great riddles of humankind.” Students are challenged to go beyond “textbook knowledge” to gain genuine insight into the cultures of these regions. Students get quite involved with the adventure; I have even seen them contact their teacher during spring break to make sure that “Dan is okay.”

During my first experience with students following Dan and the team on MayaQuest, I expected the students to gain factual knowledge about Central and South America, but I was not prepared for the emotional rewards and deeper insights they received from this educational tool. Students began to see Dan as more than an “action hero.” Sure, he rides his bicycle through jungles and deserts and tangles with snakes and wild creatures, but students began to care about him and the team and respect their humanitarian approach to the people they meet. Students also became more reflective about their own actions. In the beginning of the journey, they made decisions in a simplistic way about the destination of the team or how to solve a problem encountered on the road. As the journey progressed, students began to weigh issues more carefully and realized that what might have been a convenient decision for the team might not have been the best one for the environment or for the indigenous peoples of the region. Frequently, students responded to problems faced in the regions with an attitude of “what can we do to help?” As a result, school supplies have been donated, computers bought, and water filtration systems installed in villages along the Quest routes.

Social studies curricula should include information about people in other countries as they are living today, not only as they have lived in traditional cultures.5 The Quest experience can help students integrate their knowledge of the past and the present, as well as speculate intelligently about the future of a society and its environment. An evaluation of student learning after a Quest might include questions that ask students to consider their own participation and growth during the course: “Did your thinking about this region and its people change over the last few weeks? How?”

For this issue of Social Education, we asked three teachers to share how they have used the interactive expeditions in their classrooms. Their remarks follow.

Quests and High Schoolers

Cindy Linzell

Teaching about culture in the high school classroom is often a difficult and challenging task. By the time the students reach high school, they often have defined opinions and are set in their ways. This is particularly true in the foreign language classroom. Any resource that gets the students excited about learning is a teacher’s dream, and a resource that I would love to use in my classroom. Once the students are excited, the walls come down, and learning begins. MayaQuest is one of those resources. It is an excellent way to teach culture in any classroom, not just foreign language. The following information describes how I have used Maya
Quest with my high school students as I teach them Spanish. The majority of the activities can be adapted for almost any discipline. It is important to point out that these activities did not consume the entire class period, and that other portions of the curriculum were not neglected during MayaQuest.

When using MayaQuest in the classroom, I found it most beneficial to begin the unit about two weeks before the quest started. With the proper introduction, the students could not wait for the start of MayaQuest. I began my introduction by showing a news clip of one of the first MayaQuests. This gave the students a good visual idea of what we would be studying. I also showed several videos on the Maya, including “Lost Kingdoms of the Maya” by National Geographic and ”Lost Civilizations.” These videos provided an excellent history of the Maya and were done very well. The students completed worksheets while watching these videos. The students were then given a chance to explore the MayaQuest CD, which has photos, information on the Maya, and much more. During their exploration, the students were responsible for writing down at least ten items that interested them. This assignment was graded for participation. The information was then used in a whole class discussion. I added in any important information. If it did not come up in the discussion, however, the students generally did an excellent job.

The rest of the unit was divided into two categories: the daily work and the unit project. A wide variety of daily activities were included in this unit. Most activities focused on important events in the recent history of the Maya. Examples of these are newspaper articles on Rigoberta Menchu when she won the Nobel Peace Prize and the recent end to the civil war in Guatemala. The students read these articles in Spanish and completed worksheets covering the information in the article. At the end of each reading assignment, the students were asked to write an opinion or feeling about what they read in English. It was interesting to watch the opinions of the students change during the eight weeks of the unit.

The unit project consisted of several different parts and was usually assigned a week or two into the unit. The students chose a topic from a list that I provided and I encouraged them to choose a topic that they found interesting. Examples of topics were: creation accounts, human sacrifice, modern Maya, dreams, colors, gods/goddesses, etc. If they did not find a topic on the list, they were permitted to come up with their own. This would be for the written portion of their project. I had a short conference with each student about his or her choice and discussed how he or she planned to complete the project. At that time the students also had to tell me what they plan to do for the second part of the project, which was the creative visual. The visual had to correlate to the written portion of the project and illustrate some aspect of their research. For the visual, the students created anything from a simple poster to models of pyramids and the ball court, paintings, recreations of weapons, calendars, weavings, etc. The visual was then used for the third part of the project, which was an oral presentation. The oral presentation was given at the end of the unit and had to include the information given in their written report as well as a description of their visual. In my class the description had to be in Spanish; however, this can easily be changed. During the presentations, the students took notes that were collected at the end of each day and counted for a portion of their grade. The project grade was determined by the following percentages: written portion, 25%, oral presentation, 40%, creative visual, 25% and notes, 10%. The final project grade counted for a significant portion of their semester grade.

During the time of MayaQuest when we received daily updates, the students were responsible for updating the class on the information on the computer. Each day they had to describe where the team was, what they had been doing, and any other important information. Three or four students worked together on the update during class and then gave the report at the end of the period. Students were graded on participation, how well they worked together, and completeness of information. (This group work was possible because the other students in the class were working in other groups. They rotated through each group, each one becoming responsible for the update.) Other information from the site also provided topics for the classroom. The profiles of the people provided topics for class discussions and the ethical dilemmas were great for classroom debates. The discussions and debates were graded for participation.

Throughout MayaQuest, the students were also provided the opportunity for extra credit. If they found information pertinent to the recent discussions on the Internet or found relevant information in the newspaper, they described it at the beginning of class. Many students took advantage of this, and by the end of MayaQuest, they had contributed an amazing amount to the discussions and debates.

Using MayaQuest in the high school classroom provided the students with an interesting and relevant source of information. By the end of MayaQuest, the students felt very close to the explorers and had learned a tremendous amount. They became “experts” in the area of their project and answered each other’s questions. When asked at the end of the year what their favorite activity of the year was, a huge majority of my students said MayaQuest!

Cindy Linzell

Educational Consultant
Former Spanish Teacher

Parkview High School, Lilburn, GA.


Quests and Fifth and Sixth Graders

Janis Laybourn

I teach fifth and sixth grade in a self-contained gifted program. Even before students come to me, they have typically been in the program for several years and have had opportunities to practice research skills. Thus, the projects I assign should be more than introductions to the research process, but should challenge their cumulative knowledge. I am a long-time Quest participant, so AsiaQuest in 1999 will be my fifth or sixth quest. At this point, I have a strong sense of what will be offered in terms of general concepts, opportunities for interaction, and format.

I’ve used each Quest differently. The first quest, MayaQuest 1996, was an integral part of my teaching unit on the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas. My goals and assessments were geared toward learning content and comparing and contrasting these three cultures. I used the next adventure, MayaQuest 1997, as a springboard for a large Internet project in which students compared five modern-day explorers/adventurers (of whom the MayaQuest team was one) with five Renaissance explorers. My goals and assessments were tied to comparing and contrasting the present with the past, based on nine specific questions about things like funding, sponsors, obstacles, distances traveled, equipment and supplies, and so on. This project involved far more research, analysis of information, and drawing of conclusions than had students’ work with the previous Quest.

When AfricaQuest began, I had to change my lesson plans significantly. I was teaching prehistory, archæology, and ancient cultures, and I had assumed that the Quest would focus on early hominids in the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. It didn’t, so my focus became a study of African countries and cultures. Our district had recently recommended that these topics be covered. (We do not have to follow the district’s curriculum closely, but our lives our easier if we cover most of the same material.) The daily “Mystery Photo,” as it turned out, did make a strong connection with my original theme of archeology and artifacts. But my main goal was now to have each student give a presentation using a poster that he or she had prepared on an African country.

I developed, with the students, criteria on which their work would be evaluated and a grading scale. The criteria were content, neatness, format, presentation, and use of time. Students evaluated their own work, and then I went over the grade sheets and made whatever adjustments I felt were appropriate. If students disagreed with my grades, they could appeal, and I would have to justify my evaluation. After a couple of projects, such disagreements did not happen often. I’m a tough but fair grader.

GalapagosQuest offered an opportunity to link with another discipline—science—and to aim for some of the higher levels of thinking. We had been studying geology, and so the formation and topography of the Galapagos Islands were a natural tie-in. I did several topographical mapping activities that were not in the Quest guide. I also developed a 12-question study guide. My favorite question was “Write a one-page essay predicting the future of the Galapagos Islands. Discuss issues such as tourism, species survival and diversification, and research and conservation efforts.” Students were to base their answer on what they’d read in books, on the Internet, and in magazines; heard from guest speakers; and seen on the Quest. The answers to this question took the form of short essays. Competent essays reflected the knowledge that tourism has both positive and negative effects, that many factors will impact species survival and a few will impact species diversification, and that there are several attempts underway to protect the environment and unique species of the islands, some involving research. I also ranked an essay more highly if it included examples. Our school district employs Six Trait Writing, so the essays were also evaluated on those traits: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions.

Students are proud of their work on the Quests. They chose Quest activities and assignments to be placed in their portfolios, which follow them through the twelfth grade.

Janis Laybourn

Fifth/Sixth Grade Teacher

Southwood Elementary School

Enumclaw, Washington



Quests and Second and Third Graders

Shelley McElwee

During a Quest, I have the children play the parts of various “experts” and discuss new information as it is sent to us by the adventurers. Such information appears on screen each day already organized into categories. For example, in GalapagosQuest, my young biologists were responsible for discussing the topic “Christina’s Critters,” geologists for “John’s Geolog,” storytellers for “Myths and Legends,” “grossologists” for “Gross & Disgusting,” naturalists for “Nature Notes,” and oceanographers for “Ocean Currents.” The entire class discusses the mystery photos, votes on where to send the adventure team, proposes solutions to “Dan’s Dilemma,” and tackles any other whole-group activity. I found this jigsaw-puzzle method of integrating the incoming information to be the most effective of any method we have used.

The methods of evaluation I use include:

> Weekly quizzes, which serve as content reviews. The class works together to complete these. When questions and vocabulary are too difficult for some children, I ask the best students to rewrite the questions with the participation of the “experts” on that topic. This solution has proved to be appropriate and successful.

> Journals. I require each expert group to keep a journal entry for every set of new information. The students use the program Kid Pix Studio Deluxe (Brøderbund Software) to keep this record, which includes only the most important facts, as defined by the group. I then proof the entry before it is completed. The children have really enjoyed working with this program. I did have to insist that the writing and text be completed before they decorated their page with illustrations, as this activity was thought by many students to be the best part.

> Writing Exercises. Topics covered during the Quest lent themselves to working on persuasive and expository writing and graphing. This has offered opportunities for integrating language arts, math, science and social studies. The various forms of writing have been evaluated using standardized rubrics as well as rubrics that were created by students and teacher together. Science and social studies concepts have also been evaluated in the regular quizzes on subject matter.

Shelley McElwee

La Grange Park Elementary School

La Grange Park, Illinois




1. Jeff Archer, “The Link to Higher Scores,” Education Week 18, No. 5 (1998): 10-21.

2. Harold Wenglinsky, “Does it Compute? The Relationship Between Educational Technology and Student Achievement in Mathematics, ” Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center, Princeton, NJ (1998); This study is available on the Web at www.ets.org/research/textonly/pic/dic/techtoc.html. It is based on data collected from the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for fourth and eighth graders.

3. Rachel Hefte, “MayaQuest: A Student-Directed Expedition,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 7, No. 3 (1995): 4-7.

4. The basic single classroom program, which includes a curriculum guide, poster, and Web password, costs $95.

5. For example, theme 2 (Time, Continuity, and Change) states, “How am I connected to those in the past? How has the world changed and how might it change in the future?” And theme 8 (Science, Technology, and Society) states, “How can we cope with the ever-increasing pace of change? How can we preserve our fundamental values and beliefs in the midst of technological change?” These are themes from Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, NCSS, Washington, DC, 1994.


Mary Teague Mason is Assistant Principal at Trickum Middle School in Lawrenceville, GA, and is a member of the Board of Directors of NCSS.


The Quest series is a product of Classroom Connect, a company which provides interactive media and services on the World Wide Web, and offers sites like “Connect Teacher” that provide message boards, lesson plans, newsletters, computer trouble-shooting, and searches (by grade, subject, or keyword). Its home page is www.classroom.com.