Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Escape Rooms for Education: Portable Puzzle Boxes in a College Communication Class

by Steven S. Vrooman

I did an Escape Room class. Well, okay, no matter how much they wanted to they could never escape class, so instead I built Puzzle Boxes they had to get into. 

The thermos is just for my tea. Only I could earn the caffeinated treasure inside that.
There was a pirate doubloon somewhere inside each one. Get it to get the points.

I was motivated to try this based on a session I attended at SXSWedu, where we worked in interdisciplinary groups to figure out how to build Escape Rooms for education. I wanted to make it more portable and containable, so I tried to build Puzzle Boxes instead.

It turns out that an actual Escape Room is easier to plan than this kind of thing. For one thing, you can just set things out all over the room, which makes it a bit easier to manage the puzzles. I have been hunting for ever smaller and smaller boxes and locks for a month now to prep for this. I am reminded of this scene in that ridiculous genius, Flann O'Brien's, crazy novel, The Third Policeman:

And making the boxes fit a narrative is harder than if I can lay down bear rugs and have a saloon with a player piano: 


Each box I use has a theme, like what's inside the carry-on or the pink backpack or the boat emergency box. Sometimes it is easier to carry off the idea as things get smaller, and sometimes not.

Also, you also don't have to have so many things embedded inside other things in full room. I was constantly convinced I had locked the combination clue which opened the key bag inside the box the key in the bag opened, and such. That kind of thing gets easier as you do it more, but it was still nerve-wracking. My colleague and partner in crime, Dr. Chris Bollinger, kept track of it all by taping keys or combinations to papers with the boxes labelled:

I think we'll get something more like a key-sorting tackle box for that for next time.

Anyway, they solved the puzzles in about 40 minutes, which included doing an online quiz on the reading content, a small scavenger hunt in the room to get more of the Escape Room feel, and a bit where they had to demonstrate their application of concepts from the reading to a case study to one of us, "The Wizard."

These were the easiest puzzles we could do and still have 3 or 4 layers deep of boxes/bags, with some "here's a key, but it doesn't fit any of your locks yet" sorts of moments.

I had hoped to make them harder puzzles and to make the students utilize more content to solve them, but I ran out of time.

This is an activity I plan on using in my classes going forward, and I also hope to be bringing this to association meetings and corporate retreat sorts of things, so this was a test of prep time, administration challenges, how well adding learning objectives to these puzzles works, and whether or not an Escape Box is actually as fun as I thought it would be.

The short evaluation is that it worked well. The students had quite a bit of fun. Here they are figuring our how to use the black-light one of their boxes provided to find invisible messages on a case of business cards from the briefcase that had simply seemed like "flavor items":

I know this is revealing secrets to the puzzle, but if you've ever done an Escape Room, you've used the black-light trick.

Hearing them get excited to open a box and then groan when they see two locked bags inside was pretty great. The first group to hold up the doubloon was really stoked. I think amping up the between-group speed competition in the future will be a good thing. That will be interesting, since I also want to build puzzles where they have to trade keys to finish, either as a surprise they have to figure out without prompting, or as a negotiation bit to add more communication learning outcomes, or as an artificial way to even the timing of completion out so one group doesn't get too far ahead.

They were *really* motivated to perform on the online quiz, which they had to get 100% on in order to get the key, and the performance task. That's the kind of engagement we want.

We were also able to take the content, in this case group dynamics and leadership, and really debrief using the things that happened during the activity itself, as well.

And that was one of the great takeaways from this, for me, for the class, and perhaps looking ahead to working with this kind of thing in the future: The groupthink was very strong. The boat box group, for example, after they opened the main locked compartment, were stuck:

They had two brands of locks which shared a key size. In other words, the key went in but didn't turn. That was as it should be for the puzzle, but they were convinced I had messed up the puzzle, even through the key had a different brand etched on it than the lock's brand.

I had to give them a hint and I tired to talk them out of the hint. I said, "You guys are gonna feel pretty dumb when I show you." But they were desperate.

I closed the lid of the box.

Still nothing. I gave them a bit of time. I had to open this compartment for them:

They were LOOKING RIGHT AT IT, BUT THEY COULD NOT SEE IT. Their groupthink had literally led their culture to write over reality. In fact, they convinced Dr. Bollinger and myself, for a second, that there had been some mistake. We had been primed for this, as we were a bit uncertain whether or not we'd made a locking error, but they still convinced us, PEOPLE NOT IN THEIR GROUP, that their groupthink version of reality was true. #FakeNews. That was a really important takeaway. Each group had their own moments of this, just a bit less intense.

On the whole, they learned a huge amount from the process elements, which in a communication class or first-year experience class or a corporate or teacher retreat or something would be really valuable. I think in other contexts, where those lessons were not so key, that their deep engagement with the puzzles really had them learning the content they were using to unlock things. If I were a math teacher, for example, I would do this kind of thing a lot. Numerical answers are perfect for this sort of thing, especially with so many programmable combination locks out there.

The downside is the time it takes in planning. And you can't really have them put the puzzles back together how they found them, since they don't actually always remember how. I think I will try to incentivize that as part of the next time I try this out and see if I can do that to save myself prep time. (You need master keys and a combination cheat sheet to do that so they don't lock something away forever by mistake!). I think leading them to design their own puzzles for each other or for future groups would also be a nice exercise, especially for certain classes (communication, education, leadership, etc.). I certainly benefited from that at SXSWedu.

I am also going to take pictures and create a visual guide for myself for each puzzle next time so they are easy to make again. Obviously if I do this more than once a class I will need to develop more than one option for each box to reduce boredom, but I did this with five groups of five people, so I could rotate all 5 puzzles and get extra mileage.

The last thing I really want to do is to deepen the narrative a bit more. I already have some flair on the carry-on, especially, to make it seem real. I need to do more with the other boxes and have non-puzzle flavor text and objects to build a story they can unravel for deeper engagement. Maybe all these people disappeared or something? They solve a mystery of some kind? Gotta think further. If I make it engaging like that on multiple vectors (puzzle, story, etc.), I can capture more interest. 

I think then I can make really hard boxes they can't finish in time. They leave class and need to do some homework to be able to finish? Because they are in boxes we can have them put it all away and then have another crack at it next session? This was part of my thinking in making Puzzle Boxes instead of Escape Rooms. I am a college professor and do not have the luxury of my "own" classroom. 

I think this all has a lot of promise. I will update with future blog posts on this. If you do this kind of stuff, yourself, please let me know and we can compare notes!

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