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ANU Escape Room opens doors to public
ANU Escape Room creator Dr Bernardo Pereira Nunes is designing new riddles and puzzles for domains outside of advanced computing, such as epidemiology, emergency medicine, and introductory computing. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU
Tuesday 21 March 2023
The original Escape Room was difficult to crack. Only one team was able to solve all five riddles. But the high rate of difficulty did not prevent other educators and business leaders from asking if they could have a go.
Escape Rooms allow participants to fully immerse themselves in simulated worlds with specific contexts, combining social interaction with challenging riddles, puzzles and tasks.
Designed by Dr Bernardo Pereira Nunes to assess students' grasp of advanced computing concepts and reintroduce in-person collaboration coming out of the pandemic, the software for The Australian National University (ANU) Escape Room is highly adaptable.
Currently in development is a new version of the Escape Room that will confront students from the ANU Applied Epidemiology PhD program with a race to identify the origin of a new virus.
An executive working at SAP Australia inquired about hiring the room for a team-building work retreat. And students from Belconnen High School will soon visit to try their hand at riddles meant to teach introductory computing concepts.
Gamification promotes learning, team-building
As a mentor for computer science students who will soon enter the workforce, Dr Pereira Nunes uses the Escape Room to simulate demanding envioronments where communication and teamwork are crucial.
"Many students prefer to work on their own," Dr Pereira Nunes said. "In the labs, we have tried to promote collaboration and teamwork, etc. but then I saw in the Escape Room an opportunity to develop these skills and help them see the benefits of working as a team."
Dr Pereira Nunes believes that people learn more when they are active participants rather than passive listeners, and this extends beyond the university environmnet. He forsees the Escape Room becoming a popular training and team-building tool for local businesses in Canberra, starting with those already affiliated with the ANU.
“We are open to working with people to create riddles, puzzles, and games that are specific to the challenges they have, and can improve the working process of their team,” Dr Pereira Nunes said.
Those challenges can relate to “hard skills” in specific work domains, or “soft skills” such as collaboration or critical thinking.
If the goal of the work retreat is teambuilding, riddles can be presented sequentially, such that participants are forced to work together to solve them.
“They need to solve the puzzles within an hour, otherwise they will not succeed. The experience of making collective decisions and working under time pressure teaches them how to work as a team,” he said.
Or if developing leadership skills is important, the riddles can be designed to encourage delegated, parallel work.
"We can set up the puzzles in a way that a leader will emerge out of the experience,” he said.
After a brainstorming session, Dr Pereira Nunes and his team can customise the riddles and the software that delivers them via a large computer monitor. A game master is provided to explain the rules and guide the players.
The time limit encourages participants to develop processes that maximise efficiency. After escaping the Escape Room, participants are greeted by curators who facilitate a discussion.
“We watch them perform the tasks and assess their approaches. Then afterward we say, ‘Do you remember this concept? Could you have done it this way?” Dr Pereira Nunes said.
The new approaches discovered, and the new connections built among participants are then taken back to the workplace.
Dr Pereira Nunes foresees a medical emergency escape room where participants need to diagnose a critically ill patient, a legal profession escape room with riddles related to witness examination and evidence collection, and a defence escape room to teach important tactical skills and safety protocols, among many others.
Building your own Escape Room
Dr Pereira Nunes and his team are offering the Escape Room software as a free download hoping other institutions of learning will create their own Escape Rooms.
“People are worried about the cost,” Dr Pereira Nunes said. “But we spent very little money.”
Their original concept for the look and feel of the room was the inside of a computer. Participants would need to “fix a bug in order to escape” it.
They contacted the IT team at the ANU College of Engineering, Computing, and Cybernetics (CECC) who told them where to find e-waste to be collected from all over the College.
“We started our search and found monitors, boards, memory, computer cases, and peripherals. There was no actual sketch, it was based on what we could find and our creativity,” Dr Pereira Nunes said.
Custom-designed pieces for the puzzles were created on 3D printers at the ANU MakerSpace. The only purchases were the UV lights and a few other decorative objects such as colourful skull masks.
Whether people come to the ANU campus or build their own escape rooms, Dr Pereira Nunes hopes that this enjoyable teaching and team-building tool will impact as many people as possible.
“When you find something that works, you want to share it,” he said.