Getting Things Done...Escape Room-Style
Mystery . . . clues . . . suspense . . . riddles . . . decipher . . . unlock . . . success.
Who knew math could be so intriguing?
“I’ve noticed sometimes students in class lack a little bit of motivation or excitement toward math specifically. They know it’s important, but it’s hard for them to get too excited about it,” says AmeriCorps member Thomas Clark (ACE 25, Jacksonville). “That’s where I got the idea of an escape room.”
A Princeton University graduate in computer science, Clark, teaches math and computer science at Bishop Kenny High School. He wanted to do something a bit different with his degree. “I had access to all these opportunities that most people (didn’t),” he says. “So, I definitely felt a sense that I should give back with all the things I’ve been fortunate to receive,” he says. AmeriCorps, the national service initiative with its pledge to “get things done,” provides a perfect way to give back. Clark is designing and implementing the first-ever AP Computer Science A curriculum at Bishop Kenny in hopes of making a lasting impact on the school and community.
One of the bigger challenges Clark faces is inspiring his students to be passionate about what they’re learning. He hoped to jump start their interest with a contemporary take on a scavenger hunt—the escape room.
“I knew I wanted to do an activity that would get students excited and really make them invest all their mental resources into solving a certain problem and to activate certain parts of their brains they weren’t necessarily always using,” Clark says. He wanted to find a way to challenge his students to use their own resourcefulness, observe what’s around them, improvise, and look for clues.
Enter the escape room. Within the four walls of his classroom were props that contained clues he created that pertained to recent lessons.
“At the very beginning I gave them a clue,” Clark says. “I gave them a picture of a certain vegetable, which is called a Romanesco cauliflower. We had seen that before in class because it exhibits this pattern related to the Fibonocci numbers. One of the students had made a poster about the mathematician Fibonocci, and my intent was that they would see this picture and that would make them think of Fibonocci. Sure enough they did.”
The clock was ticking and the class was off and running. Clues could be hidden anywhere—in math books, backpacks, and shoe boxes—and where would the QR code lead? “The idea of solving a clue and having that lead to another clue, with the added time pressure of having to finish it before the class was over, and trying to be the first one to finish along with certain elements like having to unlock the clues and calling it an escape room made it a bit more dramatic,” Clark says.
The students seemed to enjoy the drama and the challenge. “I saw students running around the room trying to find clues and being fully engaged and being fully present to the class in a way I don’t always see,” he says.
“I did it as a review activity before a test. There are other factors at play, but students did quite well on the test after that. It was a chance to rapidly go through what we covered in unit in a fun way. I told them if there’s something you struggled with then that’s one area you can focus on.” Math skills learned? Check. As an added bonus, Clark saw it as a team-building tool and as a way to improve collaborative thinking.
“For the most part students in my class get along with one another, but even a couple months into the school year, there were some students who didn’t know the names of other students in the class. I realized they just weren’t getting opportunities to really get to know each other. The escape room was a way to do that and do some team-building,” Clark says. “Different students might have different strengths and might realize different elements of the clue at different times, but they all have to work as a team, so it encouraged them to explain their thought process and explain how they’re getting the answer to each other.”
Clark says he didn’t really like math that much in middle school, but that all changed because of the way math was taught in his high school. “It was very hands on, students coming up with new ideas and investigating things, rewarding curiosity, exploring things,” he says. “It was very rewarding to solve a problem that no one really explicitly told you how to solve, but you came up with it on your own, you have to use your team members, use your classmates as a resource, really think creatively outside the box. I really love that about math. And there’s an element of surprise, there’s always these unexpected solutions.”
Clark found that with the escape room he could replicate that. “That’s what I’m really trying to teach my kids. Not just a template for solving certain math problems, but an attitude towards problem-solving.” He’s doing just that…one math class escape room at a time.
Thomas Clark serves as an AmeriCorps member at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Florida.