FAIRBANKS — With shovels in hand, 10-year-old Tristan Metschan and his 8-year-old sister, Charlotte, tromped through the woods on the north side of Birch Hill, their family and film crew in tow.
Their mission was to find buried treasure, and not even the cloud of mosquitoes could stop them.
Tristan Metschan and his mom, Christina, spent seven weeks this spring unlocking hints, deciphering hidden codes and piecing together clues that led them from their home in Novato, California, to Fairbanks.
The treasure trail was part of an online learning program called Brain Chase, and Tristan Metschan was the first of more than 6,000 children ages 6 to 16 from around the world to discover that clues all pointed to this spot in Fairbanks.
After submitting the correct answer, Brain Chase flew Tristan and his family up to Alaska to retrieve the reward.
“Eureka!” Tristan yelled as his shovel struck the wooden crate in the forest, and he and his sister set to work on digging up the large box out of the woods as their parents watched and smiled.
Also at the scene was Brain Chase creator Allan Staker, a filmmaker who created the program with his wife, Heather, an education researcher, as a way to keep their children busy during the summer. Now the program has multiple seasons through the year and a program that adults can participate in. Staker said a massive amount of online resources exist for teaching, but few things that can tie them together in a fun and engaging way.
“We came up with an idea of having them doing a playlist of online learning activities, but we didn’t want to nag them about something else,” he said. “We wanted to do something intrinsically irresistible. That’s where we came up with the story and the treasure at the end and it kind of blew out of control and now we’re doing it for kids all over the world.”
The program brings together a variety of crafted and existing online learning resources for weekly assignments including math, science music and cooking.
Upon completion of each week’s lesson, participants unlock another episode of an animated show that’s crammed full of clues. This year those clues were tied to the Olympics. For a full explanation of how Tristan figured it out, visit the Brain Chase blog on brainchase.com.
Fees for the course range from $69 for basic courses to $229 for a broad range of courses and a bag of goodies. The most popular course is $149.
“I saw it as an opportunity during the summer for me to hang out and connect with him, to allow him to be on the computer and do fun things in an educational way,” said Tristan’s mom, Christina. “It directs him to Khan Academy (a source free online courses used in Brain Chase), how to use search engines and how to map coordinates on Google Earth.”
She also said she likes the program because it’s something the family often worked together to solve.
Ultimately, the whole family came together — just as they had throughout the Brain Chase program — to dig up the large wooden chest.
Tristan and Charlotte pulled the chest out of the ground and made quick work of the latch to reveal a black samurai-style helmet and mask. In the story of Brain Chase, the helmet once was owned by real-world female samurai warrior Tomoe Gozen.
The top of the helmet was a dial, one last puzzle for Tristan and his family to figure out, before the clockwork mechanisms revealed a hidden slot containing a key for a lockbox containing $10,000 in cash.
Tristan quickly split the stack, giving half to his sister.
“I only had seven dollars,” Charlotte said as she held the neat stacks of $100 bills in her hands.
Tristan Metschan said he’ll probably continue doing the program even though he’s won and can’t get the prize again, but said he’ll probably help his friends and little sister along.
“It’s really fun because you don’t have to have any homework,” he said.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.