Using escape rooms to launch the new school year

The new school year is about to start in Australia. This year my school is starting a new middle school initiative where Year 7 science, maths and some aspects of geography will be integrated and taught by the one teacher. And I am lucky to be one of these teachers. Since almost three subjects will be combined and taught by the one teacher, I will see my Year 7 class A LOT for a typical high school teacher. I’ve done this type of middle school/integrated curriculum before at my previous school and I always kick off the year with a project that allows each student learns about learning. This year the driving question for our first project will be ‘How can I learn effectively and achieve my personal best in maths and science?’

So I wanted a hook activity to launch the year and this project. It needs to be an activity that captures the excitement of the project (and the year’s learning) and allows me to see their existing group work skills. I played around with some ideas and thought an escape room will be good.

I have thought about escape rooms before but they seem to take a mammoth effort to create. But I thought I’d give it a go. I used the general guidelines from Bespoke ELA’s blog and was inspired by her use of Super Mario as the background story (Super Mario is one of my favourite video games series). I am using the introduction to Super Mario 3D as the background story for the escape room. If you haven’t got the time to view the video, the gist of the story is that Bowser has captured seven Sprixies (fairy-like creatures) and each time Super Mario and his pals complete a world, they rescue a Sprixie. For my escape room, a world will be a challenge and each time students complete a challenge, they rescue a Sprixie.

I also followed Bespoke ELA’s instructions on using Google Forms to create a digital escape room, using the section and validation features in Google Forms for students to enter codes to unlock rooms.

Screenshot of the introduction on Google Forms for my escape room activity. It features an embedded YouTube video for the introduction of Super Mario 3D to provide students with the background story.
The video for the background story for this escape room activity is embedded as YouTube video at the start of the Google Form.
Screenshot of a section of the escape room in Google Forms.
Students solve seven challenges. Each time they solve a challenge, they reveal a code to enter into the Google Form. The validation feature is used to check if the code they have entered is correct. If the code is correct, they proceed to the next room (next Google Form section).
Image showing a red Sprixie being rescued.
When students enter the correct code, they unlock a challenge and rescue on of the sprixies.

Students gain the code for each challenge by completing questions in small groups. The images below show each challenge. Challenge 1 was inspired by an activity in Stile, which currently has two online escape room activities. They are definitely worth checking out if you’re interested to see what other educational escape rooms can look like. I used Discovery Education Puzzlemaker to create some of the challenges.

Image showing challenge 1
Image showing challenge 2
Image showing challenge 3
Image showing challenge 4
Image showing challenge 5
Image showing challenge 6
Image showing challenge 7

All of the challenges are designed to be quite basic for this particular escape room as the purpose is to see how a group of new Year 7 students work together after knowing each other for a few days. However, escape rooms can be used as retrieval practice activities. I am planning to use this same escape room structure for my Year 12 classes, but have sample and past HSC exam questions in the challenges.

Have you created or used escape rooms before? How did you find them?

3 drama games that all teachers can use

In NSW, Australia, teachers, children and young people are getting ready for another year of school. Like many teachers, I like to kick off the year with some ice breaker and team building games. I like to think of my classes as learning communities and for my students to learn how to effectively work with each other, they need to know each other (I’m a science and STEM teacher so many activities involve group work and group projects).

A few years ago, I did team teaching with a drama and dance teacher and was amazed at how well her classes worked together, in a level I have not experienced my science classroom. In these drama and dance classes, students worked productively together. They weren’t afraid to make mistakes in front of each other. They knew how to support each other. They were attuned to each other. I initially thought maybe these classes were just composed of students who were already good friends which is why the group dynamics were so good. But the drama/dance teacher assured me A LOT of work goes into building group dynamics. So I’ve been looking into drama games that would work well in non-drama classes as ALL classes would benefit from developing from students who work well with each other, who empathise with each other, who trust each other and respect each other.

Catch my name – This game helps the class learn each other’s names. Students sit in a circle and a soft object like a small bean bag is thrown to students. The thrower says their name and throws it to another student who says their name when they catch it and throw it to the next student. In subsequent rounds students will need to say their own name and the student’s name they throw the object to. I found this game on Drama Toolkit, where a more detailed description of the game can be found.

Group walks – These are activities that build students’ physical awareness. While such drama games are targeted at developing actors’ awareness of each other’s physical presence on stage, it can also be beneficial for non-drama classes. Being taught to be physically aware of each other’s presence can help students work and learn effectively in large spaces like science labs or open learning spaces. A simple version of this game is to have students walk around in a large space slowly doing various movements like hopping and they need to make sure they don’t bump into each other. Variations and progressions of this game can be found in this blog post.

Count to 20 – I really like this game. As a class, students have to start counting from 1 to 20. Only one student can speak at a time. Any student can start counting and any student can continue the following numbers. However, there is no verbal coordination of who speaks first or next. If two or more students end up saying a number then the class starts from 1 again. See here for a detailed description of the game.

I really like how these games intentionally teach students to work productively as a team. Almost all teachers and all subjects require students to work effectively as a class. These games can be one way of deliberately teaching these skills.

Plague Inc – Learn while you infect the world

It’s the summer holidays here in Australia. This means I get to play more games than usual. Rather than spending my evenings planning lessons, I get to sit on the couch with my tablet and play games while watching the Australian Open.

Last week I stumbled across a game called Plague Inc, available on iOS an Google Play. The goal of the game is to design a disease that will become an epidemic that wipes out humanity. You as the player chooses where you start the disease, the symptoms of the disease, how the disease will be transmitted and the defence mechanisms it will have such as drug resistance.

The game is an authentic simulation of epidemiology. While it is not 100% scientifically accurate, it is accurate enough to reflect the following epidemiological aspects:

  • The location of the origin of the disease affects where and how fast the disease is transmitted. For example, a disease originating in a third world country with limited health care resources will spread faster than the same disease originating from a first world country. The disease will also spread via transport routes.
  • To design a disease that will kill everyone on Earth, the player needs to balance the rate of transmission, the severity of the disease and how lethal the disease is. Making the disease too lethal early in the game will result in doctors noticing the disease and research on a cure will begin too soon.
  • Islands are harder to infect. In the game it is often difficult to spread the disease to Greenland and Madagascar.
  • The transmission of disease follows trade and travel routes.

Plague Inc has a lot of potential in games based learning. I am planning to use it as an introductory activity for students to think about how diseases are spread on a global scale and how scientists approach epidemics. The game can be used to discuss evolution of pathogens and vectors of diseases. The game can also be used for students to test out how wealth and regional location affect a country’s ability to respond to epidemics.

Plague Inc also throws in some ethical issues. In the later stages of the game, it shows how countries begin to respond to massive numbers of people dying. Some countries’ governments are overthrown, some countries fall into anarchy and some countries bomb areas with large numbers of infected people in order to control the spread of disease. This can be used as a stimulus for a whole variety of learning that spans across many subjects.

I am planning to use Plague Inc with my Year 9 class this year when we are learning about diseases. I am going to use the game in the beginning and have students come up with questions they would like to explore and mould that into a project based learning opportunity.

Plague Inc is a bit morbid and perhaps not entirely politically correct, so it is best to check with your principal if you are thinking about using Plague Inc in your classes as well.

Action learning with Minecraft – Cycle 1

Last term I decided to undertake an action learning project to see whether using feedback will improve students’ self regulation skills in project based learning. This came from my observations that some of my  Year 7 students, who work well in traditional, teacher-centred learning activities, displayed a lot of off-task behaviours in project based learning, which included being not staying with their teams, constantly changing their minds about their projects and other actions, which resulted in a very low-quality learning artefact being produced (see my previous post for more details). This happened in their 60 second science project, where they worked in teams to create a 60 second video on an astronomical phenomenon. Their latest project was to create a model Parthenon in Minecraft where the architecture followed the golden ratio. This project was broken into 4 stages where each stage had a goal and students and I had to assess on how well they have achieved their goal in the form of medals and missions.

Based on informal classroom observations, more students were on task than the previous project. From their survey data, more students said they knew what their team’s goal was, knew how they could help their team achieve that goal, stayed with their team and were on task.

Note: The first graph shows the survey data from the 60 second science project while the second and third graphs show the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project. (Sorry, the categories have been listed backwards in surveys 2 and 3.)

student survey results for self regulation

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

There were also selected students who struggled with self regulation skills more than the rest of the class in the 60 second science project. Let’s call them Student A, Student B and Student C. When I compared their data, this is what it showed:

student A's survey data over time

student B's survey data over time

student C's survey data over time

When I combine the students’ survey data with my own classroom observations, I can conclude that these three students have worked a lot better during our project sessions. They weren’t “perfect” though, but they did improve. I did see them looking up their own houses on Google Maps a few times while they were meant to be working on their Minecraft Parthenons.

However, I don’t think I can just conclude that giving effective student feedback will cause students to have better self regulation skills in project based learning. There were some major differences between the 60 second science project and the Minecraft Parthenon project:

  • Duration of the project – The 60 second science project lasted 8 weeks while the Minecraft Parthenon project only took 3 weeks. Students might work more effectively in shorter-duration projects.
  • General appeal of the project – While the class in general enjoyed both projects, there was a more heightened excitement about using Minecraft. The games based learning aspect might have affected students’ work ethic. Many students are also very familiar with Minecraft, while the 60 second science project involved students learning and applying unfamiliar concepts such as scripting and storyboarding.
  • Structure of the projects – The 60 second science project involved students working in a range of learning spaces. At any one session, some students were in our main classroom, some students were in another classroom to film, some students were in another classroom so they can record audio. This created a slightly chaotic atmosphere even though it was organised chaos. In the Minecraft Parthenon project, all students were on the mezzanine level of the library. For students who are easily distracted, such an environmental difference might also affect their ability to self regulate.

I’m now coming up to cycle 2 of my action learning project. The next project will involve year 7s creating their own newspapers to report on the London Olympics. I’m staying with feedback and self regulation but will make a few changes to the way data is collected:

  • Student surveys will have additional questions that ask them how well they understood the feedback and how well they know how to act on that feedback
  • Observations from other teachers – I’d like someone else to come into the class and observe Student A, Student B and Student C as well as the rest of the class and note what they are doing at what times of the project session

Cycle 2 will begin in week 2 of Term 3 so watch this space for updates. Also watch this space for updates on how my team of science teachers have been using action learning to improve student learning in science at our school.

Let the games begin!

The London Olympic games will be starting on July 27. My Year 7 class will be studying a unit of work based on the Olympics that combines English, Maths, Science, Geography and History. So when I saw the Xbox game London 2012, I couldn’t help but test it out and see whether I can incorporate games based learning into parts of the unit.

London 2012 is available on Xbox and Playstation 3. On the Xbox some games are also able to be played via the Kinect motion sensor. Players can compete in over 45 Olympic events including track and field, swimming, archery, gymnastics, cycling and diving.

cycling in london 2012 game

I tried the events with both Kinect and the controller. I found the controller much more enjoyable. While some reviewers have said that using the Kinect gave the game more of an authentic feel, I would disagree. For example in the spint events, there is no need to run. All you need to do is to wave your arms wildly.(This is possibly because the game is also designed for Playstation Move, which can’t detect whether your legs are moving or not.) The KInect is nowhere sensitive enough to play table tennis properly (the ball sort of flies through the middle of your body). Archery was quite fun on the connect. If you want to play the events with Kinect, I find that Kinect Sports is much, much better (and cheaper the moment).

There were some events that were really enjoyable with the controller. I particularly liked trampoline and gymnastics, which required you to perform different routines based on pressing different combinations of buttons. Kayaking, weightlifting and shooting were also very good.

The game does have a lot of detail and gives an authentic Olympic feel. You can choose to play as different countries and when you win a gold medal, a shortened version of the national anthem plays. Each event is played at the real location of the London Olympics.

Overall, the game is OK. If your class is doing a unit on the Olympics in Term 3, it is a quite good game to use as a hook for your class. However, I find Kinect Sports to be a much better game. If you already have Kinect Sports, it might not be worth getting the London 2012 game as Kinect Sports‘ game play is much more sensitive and intuitive, cheaper, and will have a longer lifespan. Kinect Sports also has lot of the same track and field events, and in Kinect Sports, you actually need to run in the running events.

Kinect Sports game cover

 Games based learning activities using London 2012

If you are thinking about getting London 2012 for your classroom, here are some games based learning activities;

  • Experiencing unfamiliar sports

Students can play sports that they may be unfamiliar with like the different routines in gymnastics and trampolining. Students can describe how these sports are judged. This can also include the venues that the sports are being played in.

  • Science of angles and wind resistance

In javelin and discus, players are required to throw at an optimum angle in order to achieve the maximum distance. In archery, wind resistance plays a part in how you aim the arrow. Learning can be designed where the London 2012 game can be used as a launch pad into more discoveries on projectile motion and wind resistance.

  • Evaluating the authenticity of the events

Most events require players to time their button pressing. For example in swimming you have to time when you press particular buttons so that it simulates smooth strokes. In sculling you have to press the buttons at the right time and maintain a consistent rhythm to gain speed. Students can learn about the techniques used in each sport and evaluate how well the game has tried to replicate that.

  • Use the game as a stimulus for students to create and host their own mini Olympics games

The London 2012 game will give students the experience to learn how different sports work and they will be able to choose their events for their Olympics, create a schedule and create processes for judging.

There are heaps more ways to integrate games into Olympic-themed learning experiences. What are your ideas?

Level Up! Using games culture to enhance learning & innovation

Level Up! is a project that involves embedding games elements into everyday classroom practice. The project involves games based learning, gamification and games design. The brochure and poster presented at the Microsoft Asia Pacific Partners in Learning conference are shown below. Click here to access the virtual classroom tour details from the Microsoft Partners in Learning website.

poster presented at the PIL c onference

It’s more than just a game

For the past 5 months I’ve been coordinating a team of 10 students to design a mobile geolocation game for mobile devices. The game is built on Aris and is designed for Year 6 Orientation Day. The team of 10 students consisted of students in years 9, 10 and 11 (15 to 17 year olds) who were part of a student-led technology team.

The team was divided into students taking on different roles. Two students were the main programmers in Aris, three students were narrative writers for the game and five students were media collectors and collected images and photos for the game. The narrative writers came up with the following as the main narrative that ran through the game:

My older sibling just left MHS and apparently he left me notes around the school for me to use to get around the school without any trouble. Now all I need to do is find the notes.

My older sibling’s friends said that these notes are crucial for me to find my way around the school; so therefore I won’t get in trouble from any teachers for being late to class.

The team designed seven quests based on this storyline. All quests related to major landmarks of the school that Year 6s would need to know when they enter high school. Each quest contains four items that students collect by scanning QR codes. After they have collected all the items for a quest, they go to the school’s assembly area to “exchange” their items with a quest “guardian”, who gives them a badge. Students need to collect all seven badges to receive a medallion and win the game. Here are some of the quests’ storylines:


The bell has gone for recess.

The first thing you need to do is to visit the toilets. Visit both the boys and girls toilets. Then find the toilet and collect toilet paper code. Find the toilet and collect soap code. Then head towards the canteen. This place is where you buy food for recess or lunch. There are also seating areas. Near the windows you will find a food code. Go and eat on the Quad and then put your rubbish in the bin. Go to the podium where the assembly takes place, to scan the appropriate guardian to receive your badge.


The bell rings for your next class. You stare at your timetable and notice that you have PE prac. You are unsure of where to go. You see a bunch of people going towards the back end of the school and you ask one of them where is the PE meeting area, They tell you the PE meeting area is just there where all the silver seats are at the back of the school. Go to the silver seats and you should find a basketball code.

After you meet your PE teacher, you need to change into your sports uniform. Go to the change rooms behind the hall to find the sneakers code. After you get changed, go to the hall and find the hockey stick code. Then go to the fields to find the soccer code. Finally go to the podium where assembly takes place, to scan the appropriate guardian to receive your badge.

The game was a success! There were some initial glitches that the students fixed during the day.

iphones with the game on the screen

The orientation game on iPhones

student scanning QR code

Year 6 student scanning a QR code to collect an item for the game

student scanning QR code

Another Year 6 student scanning a QR code to collect an item for the game

student coordinating iphones for the game

A student running the show by setting up all the iPhones before another session with Year 6s

For me, this experience is much more than making a game and playing a game on iPhones. Watching the students create the game has shown me how much young people can thrive when given a challenging task in a stimulating environment. Something that traditional classroom experiences can’t offer.

The students created the game from scratch, after a very brief training session with Macquarie ICT Innovations (MacICT). The students met face to face for 50 minutes a week and a lot of work was done outside of this time. Each student had a defined role in the team (programmer, narrative writer or media collector) and they had to constantly communicate with each other (face-to-face and on Edmodo) and complete their tasks according to a timeline, which was created by the students. There were times when one team could not continue their work because another team has not uploaded their work. In the beginning, I was the one that ensured students worked to the timeline, but overtime another student took on a leadership role and began coordinating the team. In the end, I had almost no input in the game and the students did it all themselves. It was fantastic!

students working together on Edmodo

An example of student leadership and the development of project management skills

From making this game, the students applied their literacy skills, team work skills, project management skills and problem solving skills. The way the students worked also reflected how adults worked in real-life in many businesses. Our face-to-face sessions began with each team stating where they were up to and the whole team uploading what their goals were for the session. Each team would then go off to do what they had to do. Some students stayed in the room to program the game or write narratives. Other students went around the school taking photos. Within the narrative writing team, all students wrote the narratives for the game and one student took the role of editor and made sure there were no spelling or grammatical mistakes. Based on the narrative, the media team created images or took photos. These were then passed onto the programmers who put everything together.

The testing phase of the game involved a lot of debugging. The game initially had lots of glitches and the team had to critically analyse which parts of the game were causing the glitches and how to fix them. This involved a lot of problem-solving skills where students had to undergo processes to isolate which component of the game that caused the glitch.

So after 5 months, the students succeeded in making the game. They created a game almost all by themselves with minimal help from teachers and developed some critical skills that they can carry through beyond their school years. Young people can rise up to the challenge and do amazing things! I am so proud of them.

And thanks to MacICT for lending us the iPhones and their support throughout the game design process.