Students Test Their Wits in Electronic Fox Hunt

Its creators call it the Fox Hunt, only there’s no chasing of a small mammal, no pursuit on horseback, and no pack of baying hounds

6 May 2009

Its creators call it the Fox Hunt, only there’s no chasing of a small mammal, no pursuit on horseback, and no pack of baying hounds.

Rather, officers of the IEEE student branch at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, hide a radio transmitter somewhere on campus. And teams of student hunters carry wireless receivers. More than 30 engineering students took to the hunt in April, scouring their campus for the hidden transmitter.

David Holl, a former officer in both the IEEE student branch and the WPI Wireless Association—a student group made up of amateur radio enthusiasts that provides the hunt’s transmitter—created the biannual event four years ago as a fun way to teach younger students basic electronics.

Students in teams of two or three assemble their receivers just before the hunt. “The challenge is to build the receiver as fast as possible, and start hunting,” says Briana Morey, president of the WPI IEEE Student Branch for the past two years. The students use kits of components, solderless breadboards, and a receiver schematic supplied by the school. “Usually it takes a half hour to build the receiver, or up to an hour if the students haven’t built one before,” Morey says. “For many, this is the first time they’ve built anything, ever. It’s a good way to introduce them to basic concepts, and it gives them a little experience before they have to build something for class credit in a lab.”

The final piece usually added to the receiver is a pair of headphones. The beeps coming through the headphones grow louder as the hunters get closer to the transmitter.

It takes the winning team anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes to build its receiver and find the “fox.”

“We have the older students in the branch walk around and help the hunters with any problems they might have,” Morey says.

Students search a designated 2.6-square-kilometer section of campus, through woods and brush, baseball and football fields, and dozens of classrooms and administrative buildings.

“There are a lot of buildings on campus—which helps with the hiding,” Morey says. “There are enough nooks and crannies to tuck the transmitter into that we never have a problem.”

Winning teams enjoy prizes ranging from IEEE T-shirts and bags to MP3 players and flash drives.

Such hunting is not new. Dozens of transmitter-hunting groups, mostly made up of amateur radio hobbyists, both in school and out, organize similar events around the world. One variation, known as amateur radio direction finding, or orienteering, was spawned in the 1950s in Europe. The United States started its own teams in the 1990s. Teams search for a transmitter, also relying on a map and compass to navigate through unknown terrain in a timed race.

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