Friday, November 24, 2017

Puzzle Boxes at the IAEE Expo! -- "At First It Was Hard, Then It Was Easy"

by Steven S. Vrooman

Does a blog still exist when you don't write a post for months? This, my friends, has been the busiest semester I've had in almost twenty years. Things seemed like they would balance when I agreed to speak at INBOUND17 and the IAEE ExpoExpo! Then we fast-tracked the Data Analytics Master's Program at TLU. That meant I had to overload with an additional class, a new prep at the graduate level, Data Visualization. Then some staffing shuffles meant I needed to step in as Interim Student Media Advisor at TLU, in which role I am in the process of leading the students in a strategic planning process for the future of their student media. All good projects, but when I started sinking in the swamp, I put my podcast and this blog on hiatus to catch up with my grading.

Well, I am finally writing a small post, mostly in service to the people who come to my "Can You Escape This Session?" program at ExpoExpo!

I ran the puzzle boxes workshop for the biggest group yet, and I did so in order to teach the participants how to do this themselves. For background on this project, which I do for education and professional settings, see my other posts here

The session was great, as you can see above in the video segment IAEE TV did on the session! Awesome participation and some really interesting decompression discussion afterwards. I asked groups what was easy and what was hard, and that's where the title quote came from. One participant said "At first it was hard, then it was easy." Isn't that perfect? That's what ALL education feels like. That's what all group communication things feel like, from small groups and teams up to whole conferences!

In response to their comments, I am developing ideas for a conference-wide escape/puzzle experience as well as either exhibit room wide or individual exhibitor experiences that would bridge the gap and enable more fun conversations in those spaces, which often live in between "Hey, don't take my pens/candy/logo merch without talking to me; I'm sitting right here!" and "Seriously, I can't do this right now; stop pressuring me to give you my email for a pencil." A few more ideas are percolating as a result of those conversations, so stay tuned.

Below you will find two things of use. First is the takeaway document I made for them. While you read it, how about taking my quiz on it, which would give you a combination code output for correct answers you can use to open the next lock. Second is a set of two templates for how to construct the boxes. These are real live versions of boxes I have in use, so, you know, SPOILER ALERT!!! To build your own, you need to keep track of everything and be able to answer questions from the floor. This is how I do that.

IAEE’s Annual Meeting Take-A-Way

Topic: Can You Escape from this Session?

Presenter(s) Information: Dr. Steven Vrooman, Professor of Communication, Texas Lutheran University

Date: 11/28/17

Time: 9:00am-10:00am

This session will show you how to make modular, portable puzzle rooms in the form of puzzle boxes, while you solve a box in a small group yourself. What you learn here could be scaled up to a full-on escape room at your next conference, but a locked box on a table provides quite a bit of fun, as well.

First, the spine of the thing:

  1. Have a clear learning objective. Tactile, puzzle-based learning is some of the best learning we have. Use these opportunities to get participants involved in interesting ideas.
  2. Create a takeaway text. Well, just like this one, really. They should have a bit of something to read and explore.
  3. Build a quiz or two online. Using Google Forms or some other service, make them use their knowledge of the takeaway text to finish a quiz which gives them a clue.

Second, the construction of the boxes:

  1. Think Russian dolls. Nest layers inside each other. Each layer is locked, but it should take some thinking to get through it.
  2. Delay gratification. Key locks have keys hidden in the outer layers of the box structure that you can only use later. Combination locks work the same, with clues hidden in plain sight (like cards, books or thematic artifacts), as outputs from your quizzes, or with tricks (code, invisible ink they get a blacklight for later, etc.)
  3. Map it out! Have one structure for all of the boxes, even if the theme of each (carry-on, briefcase, tackle box) changes, so you can help them when they get stuck. Put that map on paper or spreadsheet so you know what opens what lock. Because they will get stuck and text you. And you want to be confident about your answer.
Finally, the results! Association meetings and conferences and expos can be exhausting. So many slidedecks, so many business cards and pitches and logoed pens. Your schedule needs more fun. This is fun, with a hard-to-forget Tootsie Roll center of learning inside. I’ve never met a person who regretted attending a session like this.

And now for the templates. The idea is that a column is a level of the box, a sense of what is accessible at any given time in the experience. A row delves into subsequent levels and what is inside. Although these are small boxes, if you've ever done a big escape room, you will see the similarity in structure in the levels of puzzle. So this should provide a reasonable guide to scaling this kind of project [or, you know, hint, hint, you can always hire me to do it for you :) ]. Good luck, and please send me any questions you might have if you are ready to try this yourself.

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