May 2020 | Resource Feature
Using Escape Rooms in the Chemistry Classroom
By Elizabeth Christophy
|Figure 1. A key is an essential component of the escape room activities.|
An escape room is defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as, “a game where people are locked into a room and have to find a way to escape by finding clues.” In the chemistry classroom, instead of being simply a game, the escape room idea can be used to help students learn chemical concepts.
It has been shown that active learning increases students’ interest in what they are studying.1 As science teachers, we have many ways to get students out of their seats to manipulate chemicals and equipment. Traditional laboratory experiments are one way in which we accomplish this, but the “cookbook” nature of those experiments often leads to students’ lack of interest and short attention spans. By reimagining these experiments through the lens of escape rooms, I have devised activities designed to increase student interest and focus.
In this article, I’ll describe two very different escape rooms that I have successfully used with my classes. Both of the activities are available in the AACT Classroom Resource Library.
Advantages of using escape rooms
One aspect of using escape rooms in the classroom is giving the students the experience of working in groups. Learning how to work in groups has become a very valuable skill in the workplace, yet students in the classroom often resist group work or do not use it effectively.2
In the activities described below, cooperation among the group members is emphasized. The students are grouped by ability, so that no single group member is carrying the group while the others merely observe. Students are carefully observed by the teacher during the activity for their interaction and social dynamics, and part of their grade is based on those observations.
Another important aspect of the escape room is getting buy-in from the students. The escape room adds a competitive element that increases students’ motivation to work together to achieve their goals. The students are engaged by the activity, and their desire to participate is increased. Students have to literally find locks and keys in order to “escape.” Each part of the escape room involves a laboratory activity that the students already have some familiarity with. They then need to apply that knowledge to the new situation to be successful.
Escape rooms allow for differentiation of the lesson. By making clues to the solution available to the students, the lesson can be scaffolded as needed. In my classroom, I’ve accomplished this in two ways. One way was to have the same clues available for each group — but the students had to choose whether or not to buy the clues (the “price” was a 10-point deduction from their grade). The other way was for me to provide clues from the start, but with the clues differentiated based on the ability of the members of the group.
Activity 1: The Thermodynamics Escape Room for AP Chemistry
The first escape room activity I developed was for my Advanced Placement Chemistry class, because I was looking for a way to vary the activities in the classroom. My school’s periods are 80-minute blocks, and keeping students engaged for that long can be challenging. Escape rooms are very popular in our local area, and I assumed my students had heard of them — if not actually participated in them.
I have never participated in a commercial escape room myself, but I do know that it is a very immersive activity. There is a scenario to follow, clues to find and unravel, and an actual room to escape from. I wanted the escape room that I developed to have those same characteristics. I spent a long time at the hardware store, looking at keys and locks, and even more time at home, playing with possibilities and deciding what would and wouldn’t work. It was very important to me to have actual keys and actual locks — and every escape room I’ve written uses those components.
For my first escape room, I decided to have the activity function as an assessment. In AP Chemistry, I find that students often do not manage to show what they know on a test. Sometimes this is because they are nervous; other times, it is because they feel rushed, and as a result they rely on memory rather than thinking the problem through. I felt that by doing a nontraditional assessment, I would gain a better understanding of what my students understood about a very challenging chemistry topic.
I also felt that students had to work in groups for this assignment. Not only would this save on resources, but more importantly, it would force students to think through the problem. By having the students do group work, I could listen to the students talk with each other, and thus have another metric with which to assess them. I made sure, however, to assign the groups for this activity, and did let the students choose their own partners. I wanted to group them by ability, because I wanted everyone to participate equally. I also did not want one person making the decisions and the other people in the group simply agreeing.
To ensure equal participation, I included in my rubric that the proctor would be observing group dynamics and could deduct or add points for any individual in the group based on their participation. This ended up working very well. I knew the relative abilities of the students in the class, so I grouped them by level, and it was very clear which groups figured out the tasks quickly, and which were struggling.
To make sure the tasks could be completed in the time allotted, I built in clues that students could “buy” if they were stuck. I had three clues ready (one for each task). I did not want the students to give up immediately and go straight for the clues, so I added a time of 10 minutes before they could even ask for the clue. For my students, however, losing points was a deterrent, so they were very reluctant to buy the clue, even when they were unsure where to go next.
I had also built a speed incentive into the tasks, with extra credit going to the group that finished within a specified time limit. This worked much better than the hints at keeping the students on task, and I kept this idea through subsequent iterations of the escape room idea.
The students wore goggles throughout the activity. They were being observed (and graded) on their safety practices throughout. The available chemicals included: baking soda, borax, calcium chloride. copper wire, 0.1 M hydrochloric acid, 3% hydrogen peroxide, magnesium, magnesium sulfate, silver nitrate, sodium carbonate, sodium chloride, 0.1 M sodium hydroxide, strontium chloride, vinegar, and yeast. Most of these are household substances that the students had worked with in the past, and knew how to handle. There were also gloves available for handling substances such as the sodium nitrate (which will stain) if the students chose to use them.
Outline of the activity
The backstory of our escape room was that the students were being held in an old, mysterious Gothic house and had to complete tasks in order to escape. They had three tasks to perform: light a tap light without touching it, free a key from a block of ice without using a conventional heat source, and free a lock which was buried in a pile of glue. The students had access to the chemicals listed above, and to standard lab equipment. Many of the chemicals available were simply distractors that would not be needed during the activity. The emphasis of the activity was thermodynamics, so I had also prepared questions for the students to answer about the entropy, enthalpy, and free energy changes that occurred during their “escape.”
Beginning with the first task, the students needed to navigate through the available equipment and chemicals to find the best solution. The tap lights had been placed vertically on the floor, leaning against the teacher’s desk. The students needed to figure out a way to light it without actually touching it. They quickly figured out that if they made a gas in an Erlenmeyer flask using vinegar and baking soda, they could shoot something at the light to turn it on.
They also had access to a rubber stopper and a balloon (the latter of which turned out to be very effective as a distractor). They tried to fill the balloon with gas, but the balloon was not able to produce enough energy to light the tap light. They eventually determined they needed to ignore the balloon, and use the rubber stopper instead.
The second task was to free the key from a block of ice without using a hot plate or Bunsen burner. Students had previously done a hand-warmer experiment, so my hope was they would remember one of the exothermic reactions and use it to melt the ice. I thought they would do the reaction in a small beaker, and then put the hot beaker on the ice to melt it. The students surprised me by remembering that dissolving salts in water can be exothermic, so they simply put the solid salt on the ice. As the water melted, the solid dissolved into the water and heated it up, so that eventually enough ice melted to free the key. They essentially used the idea of freezing point depression — even though they had not yet studied colligative properties.
The third task was to free the lock from a pool of glue. I did not know whether the students remembered (or had even learned) that borax and glue would make a polymer, but the task proved surprisingly easy. The students all remembered having done that reaction in middle school, so they quickly found the borax, reacted it with the glue, and freed the lock.
Having run the experiment once, there were some changes I made before I repeated it. For instance, the students had barely paid attention to the backstory I’d written to explain why the students were locked in the room, so I did not spend much time developing backstories for other iterations of the activity.
A major change I made was to simplify the setup of the activity. I had laid out so many chemicals and equipment that it took a long time to set up and to take down. My original idea was to give each group one set of everything they would need, but that proved unwieldly. I ended up giving them a sampling of what they would need, and kept everything else in a central location. When they needed something else, they came to me and I obtained it for them.
As mentioned earlier, I had developed clues to prod the students along if they got lost, but they were very reluctant to buy them, due to their high cost in points. I therefore modified the clue idea for the next escape room activity, as shown below.
Activity 2: The Untouchable Key Escape Room for General Chemistry
The second major escape room activity that I developed was for first-year, college-preparatory chemistry. Remembering the large investment in setup time and equipment from the Advanced Placement escape room, I simplified this one, but kept the same basic elements. The students were still put in homogenous groups, tasked with finding a physical key, and offered clues to help them along.
This time, however, there was not a large setup, and no distractor chemicals were utilized. The escape room only required a key, aluminum foil, and copper(II) chloride. Also, unlike the previous escape room, this one was set up as a final exam review, rather than an assessment, so it was much broader. It covered topics such as hydrates, percent composition, Lewis dot structures, chemical reactions, and stoichiometry.
As with the AP escape room, I offered an incentive for students to stay on task. In this case, I gave 5 extra credit points to the group that finished first and 3 points to the group that finished second. I also specified that 10 points of the grade would be for cooperation within the group.
Again, I grouped the students by ability, for the same reasons as above. I wanted to give these students hints, but because I remembered that the other students had not wanted to sacrifice a point price to pay for them, I gave the hints freely. However, I differentiated the hints, so that students who needed more help received it, but discretely. I told the students that their clues were confidential and not to share them with other groups, so students did not know who had the easier clues.
The chemical reaction used in this escape room was 2Al(s) + 3CuCl2(aq) → 2AlCl3(aq) + 3Cu(s). The students wore goggles throughout the activity, and were instructed not to touch any of the substances in the lab with their bare hands. The students were observed throughout the activity to make sure they were following correct safety practices.
|Figure 2. Reaction between copper(II) chloride and a key wrapped in aluminum foil during the escape room activity.|
Outline of the activity
In this activity, the physical task was fairly simple. For many years, at the beginning of the school year, I had my first-year chemistry students put a ball of aluminum foil in a solution of copper(II) chloride as a demonstration of physical and chemical properties. Now, at the end of the year, the students had studied chemical reactions, percent composition, and stoichiometry, so they were ready to perform the reaction again — this time, quantitatively.
The premise of this activity was that the key was wrapped in aluminum foil and the students needed to free the key by reacting it with copper(II) chloride. The students were supplied with enough copper(II) chloride dihydrate to enable them to mass 1.50 g of copper(II) chloride dihydrate, and I instructed them to dissolve the solid into 50 mL of water. This ensured that the aluminum was the limiting reagent and the key would be freed. They were instructed to filter the solids from the solution so that everything could be disposed of safely. This also enabled them to separate the key from the rest of the solids using tongs.
I had the students mass the foil/key package before the
experiment, and the key at the end of the experiment, so that they could
determine the mass of the aluminum foil. From these amounts, the students could
determine the limiting reagent. They were also required to answer other
questions about the reactants and the reaction, such as type of reaction and
percent of water in the hydrate.
Both activities went over extremely well with the students — and I plan on using them again. It was clear to observers that the students were engaged in the activity and working cooperatively to achieve their goal. The differentiation of the groups was effective, and the differing methods of thinking and figuring out paths between the groups was very evident.
An escape room activity is flexible enough to be used almost anywhere in the curriculum. With a little imagination, it could cover any topic at any level of difficulty, as either an assessment, a review for the assessment, or an alternative to a more conventional laboratory exercise. The escape room encourages cooperation and participation, and allows students to apply their knowledge in new and unexpected ways. I highly recommend this type of activity as a regular part of the chemistry classroom.
(article cover) Reddogs/Bigstockphotos.com