Escape Room unlocks inventive path to learning

One room, 60 minutes, five puzzles and the only way out is to solve them. That’s the challenge facing students at the ANU School of Computing.

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Escape Room unlocks inventive path to learning
Escape Room unlocks inventive path to learning

Tapping into a global trend of escape rooms — where participants are locked in a room and must solve puzzles in order to get out — the innovative teaching exercise is the creation of Senior Lecturer Dr Bernardo Pereira Nunes and aims to teach computational thinking, problem-solving and collaboration, while having a bit of fun.

Students are given an hour to solve five computer science puzzles in a room filled with cobwebs, hidden tools and props that double as clues.

“I had this idea a couple of years ago,” Pereira Nunes said. “I had experienced an escape room and I started thinking how could I do this for my students?”

Escape room

The design of the neon-lit room, as well as the riddles, clues and accompanying software, were developed by Pereira Nunes’ tutors and former students, who admit they are a little jealous of his current cohort.

Students enrolled in the Software Design Methodologies course were invited to organise themselves into teams and choose a time slot to try their luck. Each of the puzzles addresses different topics taught in the course, including software testing, design patterns and unified modeling language (UML).

“One of the games is a puzzle where they have to solve an encoded sentence that’s in one of the walls, so we give them a code and some hints,” Pereira Nunes said.

Dr Pereira Nunes believes that students learn more when they are active participants rather than passive listeners. Freed from the pressure of earning marks, he said, “they perform at their best”.

Master of Computing student Natasha Pegler

Master of Computing student Natasha Pegler was part of the only team to ‘escape’ the converted meeting room.

“They did a really good job of organising it and putting together the puzzles, Pegler said. “There was a good amount of assembly and interpreting the physical props and then finding where one bit of information fits in with something else.”

Pegler and her teammates — Rosa Rosmery Soto Ruidias, Carina Li and Ho Yan Or — often split into pairs to attack two puzzles at once.

“At the beginning, we were all of us working on one task,” said Soto Ruidias. “But when we got stuck in one part, we divided for the first time. And then we just mixed it up.”

“It didn’t feel like an assignment,” Or said. “It was just like a game, it was really fun.”

Ruiqi Song was part of an undergraduate team that solved two of the five puzzles. He said their strategic approach was to work separately, one person to a puzzle.

“There are certainly connections between the Escape Room and my studies,” Song said. “For instance, the java part. I enjoyed the whole experience.”

Escape room team

The Escape Room, which is housed in the Computer Science & Information Technology building on the ANU campus, will be used in computing courses for the foreseeable future. Dr Pereira Nunes said the room has research applications as well.

“We are interested to see how outcomes are impacted by such factors as whether a single leader emerges, or, whether teams decide to work in smaller groups or always as a single unit.”

Dr Pereira Nunes expressed appreciation for the Escape Room design team which included Ed Mulcahy, Angel Leelasorn, John Kim, Cathy Cheung, and Qinyu Zhao.

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