Five students hunched over a classroom table, their huddled heads eclipsing a lone beaker filled with blue liquid. Around them, desks lay sideways and flipped upside down. Time was running out. They had been locked inside the room and were absorbed in figuring out their escape, which they knew had to involve that blue beaker.
Sounds stressful, but the students had volunteered. They had an hour to solve a series of puzzles using chemistry experiments as part of a trial of an educational activity for high school students at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Dato’ Jaafar in Johor, Malaysia. The game was inspired by escape rooms, the popular recreational activity that has captivated puzzle enthusiasts worldwide in the past several years. In escape rooms, players scour special rooms for clues to free themselves by solving math or other logic-based riddles. They also have to avoid red herrings designed to throw them off the trail.
Back in the room with the beaker, the students set a plan in action. Submerged in the liquid was a dark rod attached to a red wire. Following newly discovered instructions from a guidebook, the team saw that when they connected the wire to a battery, the blue solution began to lighten. After a few minutes, a message, illuminated by a blinking red light that had been unable to penetrate the blue fluid, materialized underneath the glass: “CLOCK,” it read.
One team member sprang on top of a desk to inspect a wall clock. Turning the clock over, he pulled out the lock code nestled inside. The code unlocked a door leading the group to the next room and their next puzzle.
The puzzles were designed by SMK Dato’ Jaafar chemistry teacher Isabelle Wong and researchers in Jo-Han Ng’s group at the University of Southampton, Malaysia. Educators like Wong and Ng, and some in the U.S., think escape rooms can be an effective way to engage students in chemistry.
Students seem to agree. On a five-point scale, five being the most preferred, SMK Dato’ Jaafar students who participated in the escape room rated the activity a 4.5, a full point above traditional classroom lessons. Ng thinks that active learning strategies like the escape room can motivate students to study chemistry. That motivation is especially critical in Malaysia, which has recently seen a drop in students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, he adds.
The idea to teach chemistry through escape rooms was born two summers ago, Ng says. He and his graduate students were working late in the lab when someone joked that academic research was like one long escape room; you can leave only after you’ve completed your research. Then the researchers thought, “Why not create a science-themed escape room with experiments as the puzzles?” Ng says.
The idea took a back seat to other projects until earlier this year, when Wong told Ng that Malaysia’s Ministry of Education had decided to introduce “green technology” into the chemistry curriculum by 2020. They saw an opportunity to apply the topic to an escape room activity. “I knew that we could make chemistry fun again,” Ng says.
Wong and Ng had previously collaborated on other innovative approaches to teaching, including a chemistry quiz app and virtual-reality chemistry lessons inspired by the computer game Minecraft. In 2016, they advised the first all-female team to win the World Robot Olympiad.
Within a month—which included a lot of late nights—the educators had planned experiments, borrowed or purchased supplies totaling 650 Malaysian ringgit (about $165), and converted four classrooms into makeshift escape rooms. They say their biggest challenge was designing experiments that were fun and educational and could be done in under 10 minutes each.
Finally, the trial was ready. Over the course of two days, 12 teams of five would each attempt to escape the rooms. Students were so eager to try the rooms that those scheduled for the second day worried that they wouldn’t get a chance to participate. Students who went first were asked to keep the answers to themselves.
“We saw the students’ excitement in solving the puzzles and their anxiety in trying to beat the clock and also genuine teamwork on display,” Ng says. He and the others involved in the project monitored the students’ progress using laptops and borrowed closed-circuit-TV cameras. If teams got stuck, students had a cell phone to call for a hint.
In total, the students had to solve five puzzles that each revolved around a chemical concept that had been introduced in class. The puzzle with the blue beaker, for example, demonstrated the lesson on electrolysis, a process in which an electric current is passed through a substance to produce a chemical change. By applying an electric current to a solution of copper sulfate in water, they could watch as the negatively charged sulfate anions were pulled to one electrode while the positively charged copper cations were pulled to the other. As the solution diluted and lost its blue color, the word “CLOCK” became visible.
Year 10 student Gan Yee Kim says the puzzle helped him grasp how electrolysis works and understand what anions and cations are in solution. Though he wished the puzzles were a little easier, he enjoyed the experience. “It was a perfect activity,” he says.
Ultimately, all groups solved the puzzles and escaped, many marking their victories with dances. One group posed doing the “dab,” a triumphant move made famous by U.S. football player Cam Newton. On average, the teams took 46 minutes to escape and asked for four hints.
To see whether the activity improved their understanding of green technology concepts, students took assessment tests before and after the activity. Students’ scores rose from 58% on the pretest to 74% on the posttest.
“I’d love to try this escape room with my students,” says Matt Perekupka, a chemistry teacher at Cinnaminson High School in New Jersey, adding that it’s a great way to reinforce chemistry concepts. In fact, Perekupka developed a simpler chemistry escape room for his students on bonding and stoichiometry using items already found in the classroom. In his version, six teams worked through puzzles in the same room, and cheating, even if inadvertent, was only a slight issue, he says. He says students had fun with the activity and were motivated by the competitive aspect of the game. The winning team got bonus points added to a test. The Malaysian educators’ design is “next level,” he says, but finding the time and space to run something similar is a challenge. His class periods usually last 40 minutes, with more time on lab days, but having groups go individually would consume a lot of teaching time. Running the activity as a year-end review could work well, he says.
Perekupka is one of several teachers working with educational resource specialist Jenn Parsons at the American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT), an organization launched by the American Chemical Society, to make their escape room activities available on the AACT website. Educational resource websites like Teachers Pay Teachers sell escape room science kits that range from less than $10 to more than $50.
For teachers who haven’t tried recreational escape rooms, Perekupka recommends that they first do one themselves before creating a classroom version so they can better set students’ expectations. Students might think they need to tear the room apart hunting for clues, as with many escape rooms, instead of concentrating on the puzzles. That’s the last thing you want in a chemistry classroom, he says.
Ng offers another tip: Ask senior students to help create escape rooms for the lower-grade students. That way teachers can make sure the science is sound while students can keep the puzzles fun and surprising.
Ng and his team plan to develop more escape rooms, focusing next on fluid dynamics and thermodynamics. But with this initial trial they’ve already accomplished a considerable feat: getting students excited about being in a classroom, even if they are locked in.