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Escape rooms have become a cultural phenomenon over the past few years. Groups of people pay to be put into “locked” rooms they can escape only by solving a series of clues. But now education is starting to use escape rooms in both face-to-face and online courses to provide a fun method for students to apply their learning to realistic situations.
Christopher McCullick created an escape room for his accounting class at William Jewell College (Din, 2020). He did so by transforming an empty faculty office in an “accounting escape room.” One thing he learned from research is that an escape room must have a theme; his was “The Sneaky CEO.” The premise was that students were auditors brought in to examine the financial statements of a CEO suspected of providing fraudulent information to shareholders. The students needed to solve various puzzles related to the statements and auditing processes to identify the fraud. Each puzzle unlocked a clue that led to another puzzle, often hidden in an ingenious location. For instance, one clue was hidden in a false-bottom drawer, another consisted of hidden text in a notebook visible only by black light, and yet another was an arrow posted outside the window of the room. In this way the simulation combined an understanding of accounting practices with the fun of unlocking clues to solve a mystery.
Students were first shown a video that gave the story line and then were put into the room in small groups of around four. They were then given 45 minutes to solve all of the puzzle while the organizers watched via a camera in the room. Watch this video overview to learn more about the project.
McCullick hopes to expand the project by building a permanent escape room on campus. He wants to use this room to not only provide more escape room opportunities for his classes but also bring in local high school students to get them interested in accounting. A permanent space raises many other possible uses as well. For one, other instructors in other fields can come up with their own escape room games. Perhaps a department would want to host a competition related to its field and give awards to students who solve it. An institution might also want to use an escape room activity during recruiting visits as a way to excite potential students about the school and demonstrate its innovative spirit.
Faculty not wanting to build an escape room from scratch can purchase a kit from Breakout EDU. The kits are about the size of briefcases and come with a variety of items for creating clues and solving puzzles, such as various types of locks, cards, and an invisible ink pen. Purchasing the kit also provides access to a website with around 1,200 preset games. Because nearly all of these games are for K–12, however, higher education instructors will want to use the template provided to design their own games. The kit’s tools are essentially subject agnostic and so should work with nearly any game. The instructor need only develop a story and content that requires students to solve puzzles that use the tools in the kit.
But escape rooms can also be used in online learning, as evidenced by the web-based game that Enrique Cachafeiro used to teach about enzymes in his biology course at Duke University (Weisburgh, 2020). Cachafeiro built his virtual escape room using Amazon Sumerian, a browser-based virtual reality and augmented reality application. While designing a 3-D world may sound daunting, he found it remarkably easy to use the software, despite his having limited technical skills. The software provides samples of rooms and objects that serve as starting points. The user simply puts them together and modifies the information to their uses. The system is remarkably cheap as Amazon does not charge up front for the software. Instead, it charges according to the storage space and bandwidth used, which for Cachafeiro’s class came out to only about two dollars.
Cachafeiro designed his room to look like a medieval castle, with a variety of doors, chests, locks, and keys. The locks and keys represented how enzymes act like keys that unlock molecules. Every molecule uses a unique enzyme, and the objective of the activity was to teach students how to identify the correct enzyme for each molecule. They did so by solving puzzles, which were often physical representations of a chemical reaction. For instance, one puzzle was a vat into which students could pour different combinations of indicator solutions. Indicator solutions turn chemicals different colors according to their composition. Students then needed to use their knowledge that enzymes are types of proteins to solve the puzzle and get a key that they inserted into another lock to open a new puzzle. Another activity required students to play with the temperature and pH of a solution to release another enzyme key. Cachafeiro even built some simulations that demonstrated chemical reactions, such as one that used a disk inserted into various shapes to represent how molecules are reused in multiple reactions.
As it is designed, only one person can use the escape room at a time. But Cachafeiro plans to expand the idea to build a storyline around the room and allow for groups to use it. Students would enter at a specific time and use a videoconferencing, audio conferencing, or chat app to communicate with one another while solving the puzzles in the room. He also notes that the software allows users to get an immersive VR experience by using a headset to move around the room as if they were in it. The augmented reality aspect of Sumerian also opens the possibility of students using headsets to project the room into their surroundings.
Virtual or real escape rooms present a new way for students to apply course concepts to realistic situations. The enzyme activity also demonstrates how a virtual escape room can allow instructors of laboratory courses to add a laboratory-like element to an online class. Instructors wishing to build an escape room can use the framework developed by Coventry University to guide the process (Clarke et. al., 2017). Consider how an escape room can add a new dimension to your courses.
Clarke, S., Peel, D. J., Arnab, S., Morini, L., Keegan, H., & Wood, O. (2017). escapED: A framework for creating educational escape rooms and interactive games for higher/further education. International Journal of Serious Games, 4(3), 73–86. http://dx.doi.org/10.17083/ijsg.v4i3.180
Din, A. (2020, February 14). An “accounting escape room” and 4 other engaging activities. Course Hero. https://www.coursehero.com/faculty-club/best-lessons/christopher-mccullick
Weisburgh, M. (2020, February 17). Edchat Interactive the virtual escape room [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/Jw5o6VBaBmk
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