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?

STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

 1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education? 

Maths … it doesn’t have to be every odd question in Ex 2.3

This year I’m teaching an integrated curriculum for Year 7. This means Year 7s are learning English, Maths, Science, Geography and History through cross-KLA concepts.

Last week we had a lesson on scaled drawings and maps, which covered both ratios in Maths and map reading in Geography. The traditional (and perhaps easier) way is for me to show them how to work with ratios and different types of scales is to do a few examples on the board and then the students do a bunch of maths and geography questions. I then tell them whether they’re right or wrong.

But I decided to do it differently. I wanted my students to show their understanding in their own way, not through a set of questions that someone has set for them. It is also my school’s goal to allow students to negotiate their learning, and to prepare them for this I wanted to let them make negotiations on small parts of the task.

The “lesson” lasted for 5 periods. In the first 2 hours we discussed ratios, scales and how they were applied in real life (in maps, scaled models, toys, etc). Then we made “desk maps”, which were scaled drawings of our desks in the classrooms using scales such as 1 cm = 10 cm, with various objects (also drawn to scale) on the desk. This was followed by measuring scaled distances of a street map showing the local area.

The class then broke into teams. Their task was to make an explanation on how to draw a scaled diagram to someone who doesn’t know how to draw scaled diagrams. They had to plan according to these 3 questions:

1. What is my goal for this task?

2. What will my explanation for the scaled diagram be?

3. How will I present my explanation? Why have I chosen to present it in this way?

The planning process involved students spread across the whole classroom. Some students stayed at their regular desks. Others moved to the lab benches for more space. Others used the whiteboard on the other side of the room. It is more chaotic then the regular classroom, but it’s good chaos 🙂

Most students chose to do a video (for some reason my Year 7s love to make videos; I think it’s because they want to use the iPads). Their reason was because it’s easier to understand how to do maths when you can see and hear the explanation. Other groups chose to make posters. Their reasoning was because the posters can be pinned up in the classroom and students can refer to them if they needed to.

The groups then started to make their products. This involved students spreading out even more. Students who made videos went out into the playground or the storeroom next to the classroom to make their recordings. Students who made posters stayed in the classroom.

The last hour of the lesson involved students evaluating their learning process. I emphasised the process of making their product was just as important as the product. Students had to reflect on these questions:

1. What have I learnt this lesson?

2. How do I know I’ve done a good job?

3. Did I know what I had to do during the lesson? If not, how did I find out?

4. Was I able to stay on task? Why or why not?

5. Was I able to complete my task on time? Why or why not?

6. If I did the task again, how will I do an even better job?

I planned for the class to watch the videos and look at the posters after their learning evaluations, but we ran out of time. We’re going to do that next lesson where each group has to come up with a “wow” and “wonder” for each product. The “wow” is something that was done well in the product. The “wonder” is a question raised from the product such as “I wonder if you could show other scales besides 1cm=10cm to show more difficult calculations”. We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s part of one group’s videos.