Creation Guide


Table of Contents

Part 1: Storytelling in escape room for an effective pedagogy
Part 2: How to create an escape room for steam education
Part 3: Resources to find content
Part 4: Practical advice
Part 5: Disorder or disabilities
Part 6: Positive role models for girls
For starters, it is essential to highlight that educational escape rooms will neither look nor be constructed in the same way as commercial ones. Their goal differs, ergo the design process differs as well. There are two major – and noticeable – differences. When created to be used in an educational context, the room will have to have an educational objective – or several. Professional escape room designers do not prioritize on skills’ improvement or knowledge acquisition. Secondly, the teacher must know the target group, whereas the designer will be the one to design puzzle sequences without any prior knowledge of the background of his future clients.
In this second chapter, we will go over the necessary knowledge and guidelines for starting the creation process. In the next pages, we will discuss the educational objectives, the background topic, the scenario and the puzzles. This guide also aims to be inclusive for learners with SLDs and to present ways to empower girls. Ideas for adaptations on both topics will be presented in this chapter.

1. Educational objectives

The first step in the educational escape room’s design process is to clearly define the demographics of the future players. Teachers should consider: the age group and their educational needs, the difficulty of the game, its scale (how many students will have to play at the same time?) and its length (Clarke and al., 2017). Groups of 10 tend to play differently than groups of 4 in professional facilities, which usually limit the number of players to 7 (Nicholson, 2015).
The second step is formulating the learning objectives. It is important to do so at the beginning of the process, in order to create meaningful, purposeful, interwoven puzzles, rather than trying to integrate objectives into ready-made puzzles.
Conceivable learning objectives include: deepening the knowledge on one or several parts of the curriculum; developing soft skills such as collaboration, time management, as well as problem-solving skills; becoming passionate and involving as many participants as possible; and finally, testing the knowledge and the understanding of the knowledge previously acquired by the students informally.
Below are two examples of educational objectives for STEAM education. We will detail the scenarios linked to these objectives at a later stage. Both follow the 2019 French curriculum for students in the 1st grade (16-17 years old) of general education.

Educational objectives of scenario A:

  • Physics, Theme 4 – ‘Waves and signals – ‘Mechanical waves’. (Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, 2019b): Students will work on the different types of mechanical waves, the notions of frequency and wavelengths. Having a good comprehension of these notions constitutes the first educational objective of this scenario.
  • Biology, Theme 1 – ‘The Earth, Life and organisation of living things’ – ‘Genetic information, its transmission, its expression, its variation’ (Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, 2019c): Students will work on DNA structure and sequences, which constitutes the second educational objective.
  • Additionally, this scenario could include notions from music education, mathematics, technology
  • Communication, active listening, digital skills

Educational objectives of scenario B:

This scenario has been created with the aspiration to empower girls to pursue a career in STEAM, by presenting them with roles models of famous women scientists.

  • Mathematics, Theme 1 – Algebra and Theme 5 – Algorithmic and programming. (Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, 2019a): Students will work on sequences and series and cultivate their knowledge on programming.
  • Additionally, this scenario could include notions from engineering, fine arts, history
  • Collaboration, reasoning skills

2. Background topic

The background topic of the Escape Room provides context and validity to the scenario and puzzles. It will help make the game more appealing to the players, hence, engaging. Generally, it will make the story more powerful by using the storytelling skills highlighted in Chapter 1.
Even if we highly recommend it, having a background topic is not mandatory for the Escape Room to function. Nicholson’s study (2015) shows that commercial Escape Rooms do not always have a background topic (or theme, as he calls it). The most basic ones contain only a collection of puzzles, sequenced in a specific order. Others have a theme, without an overreaching story. The Room is therefore set up in a specific environment, with adapted props and decor. The players are free to create and imagine the story themselves (Nicholson, 2015). The third possibility is having a scenario without a theme. Players are assigned responsibilities and given context regarding their role in the game, but the story could be set up in a different environment, without affecting the playability of the room. Finally, the Room can have both a topic and a scenario, as well as interwoven puzzles. In this case, the puzzle sequence makes sense only in the context of the specific Room.
The topic of the Escape Room could be virtually anything, whether real or fictional, the only limit being the designer’s imagination. According to Nicholson (2015), the main topics in professional facilities are: the modern era, a specific date between 1900 and 2000, horror, fantasy and laboratory, among others. Below are two topics adapted for STEAM education, following the learning objectives highlighted above.

Topic of scenario A: Nowadays, in a conservatory. Students are working on their recitals, rehearsing their next performances or relaxing in the hall. Different kinds of music, coming from different instruments, are heard echoing in the building.

Topic of scenario B: Nowadays, in a science museum. The museum’s next exhibition – on women scientists – is almost ready to open. It displays many paintings, tools and devices which have belonged to the aforementioned scientists. (Fenaert, 2020)

3. Scenario

Once the topic of the Escape Room has been determined, it is time to create a scenario. Once again, the only limit is the designer’s imagination. Nicholson (2015) points out the most recurring storylines of the 175 surveyed facilities: escape from an unpleasant place; investigate a crime; defuse an exploding device; gather intelligence or espionage; carry out a heist, etc.
However, the designer will have to make sure not to overcomplicate the story, in order to avoid disorientation, especially regarding SLDs students. We will come back on the adaptations for SLDs in the fourth part of this chapter.
Following the topics described above, here are examples of possible scenarios.

Scenario A: A valuable instrument has been stolen. Police officers – played by the students – enter the school. The culprit is still inside the building. The chief inspector decides to lock the building for an hour, with everybody inside, giving the officers time to identify the missing instrument and identify the thief. After tracing the instrument, the police officers will conduct a DNA analysis on clues found on it, so as to identify and arrest the culprit before s/he succeeds to escape

Scenario B: Two hours before the inauguration of a museum exhibition, the director realizes that one of the objects loaned by a private collector has not been showcased. There is no explanation about it, and nobody in the museum seems to know its utility. A group of friends, IT specialists and historians – the students –, who travelled to the museum especially for the opening of the exhibition, offer their help and knowledge to find the missing information regarding the artefact. They have an hour ahead of them before the crowd starts entering the museum. For the purpose of this scenario, the mysterious object will be Ada Lovelace’s ‘Diagram for the Computation by the Engine of the numbers of Bernouilli’, published in Sketch of The Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage by Luigi Menabrea (Ada Lovelace, 2020). This diagram is perceived to be the first computer program. (Gregersen, n.d.)

4. Puzzles

4.1. Puzzles’ features and components

According to Wiemker and al. (2015), Escape Rooms’ puzzles in their simplest form are made of three components: a challenge, a solution and a reward, giving either a clue which unlocks the next puzzle or the next puzzle itself.

Clare (2015) gives out more features:
  • A puzzle must be static, up until the participants engage with it.
  • It should create surprise, either by integrating an element unlikely to happen or unexpected. Alternatively, a surprise could be caused by an element that will make sense at a later stage.
  • It should be logical and clear. Participants should be able to understand the output of the puzzle.
  • It should be challenging, without being too complicated, so that participants can remain in Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) state of “flow”. It is described as the ideal state of mind for players: a moment where the mind is set only on the goal and fully immersed in the story.
  • To deal efficiently with difficulties that players could encounter, it is essential to set up clues, which constitute – again, according to Clare (2016) – the final component of a puzzle. Clues can take virtually any form: a drawing, a sound, a piece of furniture, etc.

4.2. Puzzles’ forms

Puzzles can either be physical or mental. Physical puzzles require the manipulation of real items. They can be mazes, locks, tangrams or brain-teasers such as Rubik’s Cube, etc. On the other hand, mental puzzles require the use of deduction and the correlation of clues to find the solution. They can be codes, riddles, correlation of clues, etc. They tend to be immaterial.

4.3. Puzzles’ sequences

Once puzzles are created, the next important step is their sequencing. Each series should be carefully thought out and planned. Nicholson’s survey (2015) allowed him to isolate four general types of sequences, which he called: open path, sequential path, path-based and hybrid models (e.g. pyramid).

4.4. Tips for good puzzles

Once the puzzles and their sequences are all mapped out, some questions need to be asked, to assess their functionality and quality. First, ‘ask why’ (Nicholson, 2015): ‘why is this item here?’, ‘Why does the puzzle follow this order?’, etc. Repeat this process for every element in the Room, including the scenario. Remember that every item and element should be in the Room for a reason. Other questions might be: is the puzzle linked to the theme and narrative? Are the starting and ending points clearly discernible? Are the instructions (whether textual or implied) surrounding the puzzle understandable? Does one require external knowledge? If yes, how do the players obtain this knowledge?

4.5. Adaptations for SLDs

When all the boxes above are ticked, one question remains: are the puzzles adapted for people with Specific Learning Disorders (SLDs)? If you wonder what SLDs are, please refer to part 5 of our pedagogical guide (available on our website).
Below is a list of guidelines to follow, so as to adapt to the game (Escape Rooms on social entrepreneurship, 2020):
  • Use an adapted font (Arial, Century Gothic, OpenDys), in sizes 12 to 14, with a 1.5 line spacing.
  • Reduce the number of tasks that require writing and diversify the types of puzzles.
  • Give explicit guidelines and break instructions in several simple sentences.
  • Avoid red-herrings and give clues one puzzle at a time. For example, avoid giving a clue for the last puzzle as a reward for the first one. If you wish to do so, creating a colour code to link puzzles with clues could be a solution.
  • Focus on logic rather than memory
  • Make great use of visual elements
  • Choose puzzle types that foster collaboration in order to get players to help each other.
  • Avoid difficult physical manipulations/use of fine motor skills
  • Provide support when tasks require space management skills

4.6. Examples of puzzles for STEAM and role models for girls

Drawing from our scenarios, here are some puzzles ideas for each of them:

Puzzle idea 1 for scenario A: The push of a button triggers a succession of notes. Successfully repeating the notes’ sequence on a keyboard (either a virtual or a real one), releases a key. (ex: given by the game master)

Remember to stop any other sound in the room while the sequence is playing to avoid distractions.

Puzzle idea 2 for Scenario A: Write down a DNA sequence. Leave some of the nucleotides blank. The nucleotides to be found will create a code.

Remember to write with big, clear letters. If you are printing it, use the fonts given above. You could also use Legos instead of paper. Associate one Lego colour to a nucleotide and build a sequence with it.

Puzzle idea for scenario B: Print pictures/paintings of several famous women scientists and inventors. Write a short description of their work aside. Stick everything on the wall to create an exhibition. Place a crossword in a safe, locked with an ABC multilock (for more information regarding the different types of locks, please refer to Grain 13, IO3). Link the riddles to the scientists’ descriptions. Colour several boxes on the crossword grid. Completing the crossword will reveal the code, indicated by the coloured squares. (Fenaert, 2020)

When all the boxes above are ticked, one question remains: are the puzzles adapted for people with Specific Learning Disorders (SLDs)? If you wonder what SLDs are, please refer to part 5 of our pedagogical guide (available on our website).

Make sure that descriptions are written in black, OpenDys or Arial, size 12, with a 1.5 spacing. Align left. Use white paper.

More examples of this can be found in Chapter 6, which considers ways of making STEAM escape rooms inclusive and educative regarding gender equality.

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