Wednesday marked the beginning of the 10th annual State of Jefferson Middle School Scavenger Hunt, a competition sponsored by the Southern Oregon University Pre-College/Youth Programs to sharpen research skills and get students to think beyond Google.

Librarians around the Rogue Valley know how to get students excited about learning how to research — send them on a scavenger hunt, scouring the Internet, library and their families' networks for trivia on anything from Oregon history to politics, sports and music.

Wednesday marked the beginning of the 10th annual State of Jefferson Middle School Scavenger Hunt, a competition sponsored by the Southern Oregon University Pre-College/Youth Programs to sharpen research skills and get students to think beyond Google.

Ashland Middle School students teamed up with Pinehurst School this year on the three-day hunt to compete against eight other teams from around the Valley.

Just 10 minutes into the hunt, Grayland Lunn, 11, announced he had uncovered this year's dedicatee, an Oregon author at the center of several questions. He and friend Jackson Ottman, 11, were piecing together clues that the dedicatee wrote 89 books in his life, was originally named Pearl and loved to fish in a local river, when Ottman remembered camping last summer at Chair Riffle on the Rogue River and learning about the author who loved to fish there.

A few fast Google searches confirmed the dedicatee's identity as Zane Grey, an Oregon author known for his novels about the American West, Lunn said, beaming as he recalled the discovery.

Before the deadline this afternoon, students will have to find 25 answers to questions based in print and on the Internet, bring in items such as political campaign signs and photographs of them with local politicians, and identify songs, music and geographic locations.

The appearance of Google has changed the hunt significantly since it began for high school students 25 years ago, said Bill Street, the Ashland High School librarian who writes questions for the annual hunt.

For one thing, it's much harder to write clues that aren't easily uncovered on a search engine. If he does his job right, kids are forced to think outside their default research method, he said.

"Google's such a powerful tool," he said. "One of the goals here is to get kids aware of all the possible resources, not just Google or Wikipedia."

For answers that can be found easily online, the challenge often lies in finding a credible source and properly documenting it, he said, and students must be able to defend their choice of sources at the judges' session that occurs next week at SOU.

"A really important principle at the core of the hunt is, 'How do you get not only the answer, but prove that you have the right answer?'" he said.

The hunt also gets kids out into the community, learning to use social networks to find information.

"In order to do really well, you have to network with everyone you know — kids have to work with their parents, with their parents' friends, with the guy that owns the music store," he said.

The hunt was started by Steve Boyarsky, superintendent of Southern Oregon Educational Service District, after he watched a similar program in southern California. The hunt is able to teach kids to find accurate research with the element of fun that traditional classroom methods usually lack, he said.

"When you talk to kids about (the scavenger hunt) after they've been through it, they will say, 'I've learned more about how to research and document in one activity than in all my schooling,'" he said.

Students said the excitement is what really keeps them coming back year after year.

"It's really fun and you get to meet a lot of new people and learn a lot of new things," said Gabe Young, 13, who participated in the hunt last year as well.

His research skills improved as well, as he picked up strategies during last year's hunt.

"I wouldn't say I'm quite an expert, but I'm getting there," he said.

The Ashland team hosts a pizza party on the first night for students and their families, who are encouraged to help along the way, said AMS librarian Lauren Hall who has coached the team for five years. During the last few hours, students are usually frantically calling everyone they know in attempts to answer a few last questions, she said.

Once the hunt ends, students have to wait almost a week for the final results, determined during the judging session on Thursday, Nov. 20 at 9 a.m. Boyarsky will serve as judge, along with Ashland Municipal Judge Pam Turner and Medford attorney David Ingalls.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.