If I asked you to envision a science or maths classroom, what would you see? A chalkboard, desks arranged in neat rows, or a teacher lecturing a group of bleary-eyed students? While this may be the norm in many schools, it is not the only way to learn.
As traditional curriculums become increasingly bogged down by antiquated teaching methods, educators are leading the charge towards new and innovative ways of learning. In this blog post, we will delve into the world of STEM education and explore the exciting ways in which escape rooms can help improve engagement and performance in this challenging discipline.
What is STEM Education?
Coined in 2001 by the National Science Foundation (NSF), “STEM” refers to the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics into a cohesive academic field. As technological innovations pave our path into the future, STEM education has become more important than ever. Sadly, interest in STEM is declining as students struggle to keep up with the rigour of coursework.
Since the widespread popularisation of escape rooms in the late-2000s, researchers have taken a keen interest in how they may contribute towards solving this predicament. A recent review of literature conducted by the University of Bremen has shown that escape rooms present an exciting opportunity to sustain engagement in science, technology, math, and engineering subjects. So while the ‘gamification’ of classroom curriculums may sound too good to be true, data reveals that playful pedagogies may be the key to improving student motivation, critical thinking, and creativity.
The benefits of a playful approach.
At the heart of what makes escape rooms succeed as educational aids, is their ability to capture us in an intrinsically motivated activity known as ‘play’. Play is a universal phenomenon central to the human experience. It is through play that we first learn to interact with the world around us and develop useful life-long skills.
Renowned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget describes the process of play as creating a safe zone for learning, where students can experiment and grow from their mistakes without real-world consequences. When we become immersed in play we are more likely to think outside the box, take risks and explore new ideas. Researchers have found that play can influence our learning in positive ways by promoting;
Complete concentration on the task at hand.
When you play, your focus narrows and you become completely absorbed in what you are doing. There’s no room for distraction or runaway thoughts. Some part of you is still aware of what’s going on around you- but it doesn’t really matter. This is where true creativity comes out; when all other concerns are put on hold.
A loss of self-consciousness.
What matters is the task at hand, not who is watching or judging you. Play can help keep you focused on the problem in front of you so that any concerns about your abilities vanish. You can be creative, experiment, and come up with new ideas without feeling the pressure to succeed.
An increased sense of agency and control.
Play puts you in charge and helps you feel like you know exactly what to do and how it will turn out. There’s no need for false confidence. You’re in control, and that’s a great feeling.
An altered perception of time.
You’re not quite sure how long you’ve been at it. Minutes feel like hours and hours feel like minutes as you focus all your energy on the task at hand. You’re learning, but you wouldn’t even know it. After all, you’re just having fun!
Escape rooms offer unique opportunities for problem-solving.
It’s easy to see how these benefits could translate into a more effective learning environment. But you’re probably wondering, what is it about escape rooms in particular that makes them such potent educational tools?
As educators become increasingly aware of the benefits of play in academic contexts, efforts are made to insert elements of gamification into school curriculums. Due to the popularity of online gaming, most efforts occur in a digital space, and opportunities for physical games are often overlooked.
However, escape rooms offer a unique arena for students to engage in problem-solving activities that are not only tailored to specific STEM subjects, but that have practical, real-world applications. Most importantly, escape rooms require a balance of both logical thinking and teamwork, building upon multiple important competencies at once.
Escape rooms sharpen experimental skills.
Escape rooms are a great way to learn how to conduct an investigation, critically evaluate information, and apply trial-and-error methodologies. Escape rooms encourage problem-solving by requiring players to think laterally about alternative strategies for overcoming obstacles.
In addition to promoting creative problem-solving, escape rooms also offer an opportunity for students to apply their knowledge in real-world contexts. Unlike traditional classroom settings, escape rooms provide a truly hands-on experience, allowing students to link theory with practice.
Finally, escape rooms are adaptable and can be designed to suit the needs of any STEM curriculum. Escape rooms can present challenges that focus on specific concepts, or that require players to apply specialised skills to solve puzzles. A particularly good example of this is the chemistry curriculum at The University of Hull, which provides students with on-site escape rooms created to test their understanding of the periodic table, chemical reactions, and lab etiquette.
Escape rooms encourage collaboration and teamwork.
Escape rooms don’t just promote individual skills but encourage collaboration and teamwork. Research conducted by D’Youville College has found that escape rooms help students to develop team-based skills that are over underemphasized in STEM education, but critical in related workplace environments.
Published in the ‘Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice’, the 2020 study shows that engagement with escape rooms significantly improves students’ effective communication, active listening, problem-solving, courage to speak up, compassion, and leadership. The collaborative approach encouraged by escape rooms narrowed achievement gaps and resulted in increased performance for many participants. Addressing the results of the study, lead researcher Dr Bistulfi remarked that:
“…gamification of final exams via building a thematic escape room [is] a successful approach that can be easily adapted from Genetics to any subject with an intense problem-solving component, inside and outside of STEM.”
Escape rooms promote student engagement.
Despite a growing demand for professionals in STEM fields, academic interest in science and math is declining both within Australia and abroad. Escape rooms offer an intriguing opportunity to reverse this worrying trend and develop positive attitudes towards STEM subjects.
A study conducted by Flinders University NT discovered that “…escape rooms are an effective way to engage high school students and high schools, along with university students”. The research also revealed that escape rooms provide a fun and stimulating alternative to traditional teaching methods and can help struggling students to become more capable, confident and purposeful in their work. Students also felt better equipped with the means to tackle their studies, and showed a greater appreciation for academic culture.
Wrapping up: the future of STEM learning is more exciting than ever.
Escape rooms are an effective and innovative way to help students learn through play. With their ability to inspire collaboration and sharpen problem-solving skills, escape rooms are a valuable addition to any STEM curriculum. Thanks to a unique blend of problem-solving and teamwork, escape rooms provide students with what Dr Bistulfi describes as clear and “…actionable steps toward improvement, and a stage to practice [on].”
So, there you have it! STEM learning doesn’t have to be dry and boring. Mindshift Escape rooms provide a fun and stimulating alternative that can engage students and encourage them to excel in their studies. If you’re a parent or educator looking for ways to enhance STEM learning, then escape rooms might be the answer you’re looking for.
Alice Veldkamp, Marie-Christine P. J. Knippels, and Wouter R. Van Joolingen. “Beyond the Early Adopters: Escape Rooms in Science Education.” Frontiers in Education (Lausanne) 6 (2021): Frontiers in Education (Lausanne), 2021-03-01, Vol.6.
Eukel, Heidi, Jeanne Frenzel, Kyle Frazier, and Micah Miller. “Unlocking Student Engagement: Creation, Adaptation, and Application of an Educational Escape Room Across Three Pharmacy Campuses.” Simulation & Gaming 51, no. 2 (2020): 167-79.
Gaia Bistulfi. “Pushing Active Learning Into Assessment With a Genetics Escape-Room Final: Gamification to Develop Team Skills in STEM, on Ground and Online.” Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice 21, no. 11 (2021): 73-85.
Lathwesen, Chantal, and Nadja Belova. “Escape Rooms in STEM Teaching and Learning—Prospective Field or Declining Trend? A Literature Review.” Education Sciences 11, no. 6 (2021): 308.
Moore, Leigh, and Narelle Campbell. “Escaping the Norm: Games for Wider Participation with a Sense of Success. ‘A Practice Report’.” Student Success 11, no. 2 (2020): 127-33.
Reuter, Jéssica & Ferreira Dias, Marta & Amorim, Marlene & Figueiredo, Cláudia & Veloso, Claúdia. (2020). How to create Educational Escape rooms? Strategies for creation and design. 694-698.
Sánchez-Martín, Jesús, Mario Corrales-Serrano, Amalia Luque-Sendra, and Francisco Zamora-Polo. “Exit for Success. Gamifying Science and Technology for University Students Using Escape-room. A Preliminary Approach.” Heliyon 6, no. 7 (2020): E04340.