The Push for STEM
Anyone associated with education in the United States knows about the push for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) activities to develop students’ abilities to be innovative and competitive in an ever-changing world. This focus is one more thing to add to educators’ repertoires, but at least this one has great promise for preparing students for the future. However, it creates new challenges teachers whose content is not STEM.
The concept of STEM is not hard to embrace, as it positions students to succeed in the real-life application of content knowledge. I have always associated the driving skill of STEM to be creative problem solving, and that is something that can be used in any class. I also associate STEM with 21st century skills, which, according to Lee Crockett in his article “The Critical 21st Century Skills Every Student Needs and Why” include problem solving, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, analytic skills, accountability, and creativity. Those of us who do not teach STEM content can blend these skills into our curriculum without too much trouble, but one of the most exciting ways to do this is with a classroom Escape Room.
Escape rooms have become a popular activity for people to challenge their knowledge and work as a team to solve various problems within a set time limit. Escape rooms have popped up all over as private businesses, but also at museums. Families, groups of friends, and children’s birthday parties have all partaken in these challenges for entertainment and fun. Escape rooms challenge participants to collaborate, think critically, analyze evidence and clues, communicate effectively with their teammates and creatively solve problems in order to escape the room within the time frame. It is the perfect activity for practicing 21st century skills and the qualities that support STEM and innovative thinking. Adapting the escape room concept to the classroom takes a bit of work, but it can be both engaging and rewarding.
Escape rooms can be adapted to the classroom to conclude units, create a needed break from classroom routine, and allow students to take classroom content across domains and apply it in new ways. The concept of the escape room can also be morphed into an Amazing Race game or a scavenger hunt, with students proceeding in a predictable order through questions/challenges and working toward a final goal or key. Regardless of the method, escape rooms or scavenger hunts should include the following elements:
- Theme and story: Your theme or story might be inspired by the unit content, which could be the book that you’ve read, a time period, a person or an invention. Other themes might be more general, like a Clue Murder Mystery, a special day like Pi Day, or Black or Women’s History month.
- Decide on content: This is the harder part. First, decide what skills you want students to demonstrate. Is it specific content knowledge or do you want them to connect content to other domains? As an example, if your theme is the Great Gatsby, some questions might connect to other areas of the 1920s, such as inventions (band-aids, television, sun glasses, penicillin, convertible cars), art (Picasso, Hopper, Dali, Klee, Kahlo) or events (19th Amendment and the women’s right to vote, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the rise of the Mafia and organized crime).
- Ask questions in different ways: Once you figure out your questions and answers, then you can come up with creative ways to get there. Ciphers, jigsaw puzzles, and hidden messages in poems or newspaper articles are all ways to ask and answer questions. One way to keep things moving in the right direction is to have students answer a question, then receive a clue to get to the next question or challenge (like on the television show the Amazing Race.) Hiding envelopes with the next challenge in odd places that need to be found is part of the fun. Also, consider throwing in a physical challenge or hands-on challenge for members of the team who are more kinesthetic. You want every member of the team to be able to contribute in some way.
- Plot out the order of puzzles, clues and challenges: Now you want to make sure that one thing leads to the next and ends with a final “unlocking” or escape. Walk through the steps to make sure everything falls into place.
- Celebrate achievements: Being the first team to get to the end is a natural incentive that capitalizes on students’ innate competitiveness. There should be some kind of title or small prize for the winner, even something as simple as a free homework pass. Consider acknowledging other achievements along the way so that other teams are celebrated as well.
- Create hype for the event: Once you have everything planned out, put it on the calendar. Advertise it. Create buzz. Encourage students to dress for the theme. Decorate for the theme. All students, even high school students, enjoy a little silliness.
Escape rooms take a bit of planning, but they are great fun. Many teachers have already incorporated the escape room idea into their classroom with great success. They are also often used by gifted programs with the specific intent to explore STEM ideas. You can go big with an escape room or you can keep it as simple as a series of questions or levels in Google forms. It’s really up to the teacher and the classroom adaptability. No matter the size, escape rooms:
- Demonstrate 21st century skills such as problem solving, communication, collaboration, analytic skills, critical thinking, and creativity, which all support STEM learning.
- Connect classroom content with other content domains.
- Create a break from the normal classroom routine and make learning fun.
Beverly Zapatka Weihz is a Renaissance woman. She is a high school communications teacher, an artist, an entrepreneur, an avid traveler, and a voracious student of life. She holds a B.A. in Art Therapy and teaching certificates for both Art and English. She received a Master’s of Science in Creativity and Change Leadership from SUNY Buffalo in 2016. Her master’s study work focused on research in motivation and finding the balance between technology and creativity. She has put that research into action in her state-of-the-art broadcast studio program: a place where all students can discover their strengths, their creativity, and their own version of badass.
Beverly was recently accepted into the Transformative Studies doctoral program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, which will start in the fall. Her hope is to become a modern-day alchemist, blending her key interests of creativity, alternative education, and archetypal themes into a transformative program for at-risk students.