Secrets for Creating Escape Room Units for Your Classroom

Family time

Dinner together after the Escape Room!

On a family getaway weekend near Blueridge, Georgia (have you been? It’s such a great family vacation spot!). We stayed at a mountain retreat with stunning views (check it out here – not an affiliate link – we just loved it!). On our trip, we went to an Escape Room and there was no going back! Have you been to one? They’re more fun than I expected. And, being the teacher that I am, I couldn’t wait to put together a version for the classroom. It’s a fantastic way to work cross-curricular concepts into a single lesson. I have some tips and tricks to share for creating your own Escape Classroom activity. These activities will challenge your students to think creatively and critically while working together as a team. It gets your students moving around the classroom and into problem solving mode!

Moonshine Mountain Lodge, Blueridge, GA

Sweeping views at Moonshine Mountain Lodge!

Moonshine Mountain Lodge, Blueridge, GA

Seriously one of my favorite vacation spots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We began with a study of Ancient Egypt. Students explored (as a team) various math, history, science and language arts concepts while solving team challenges. I suspected that my students would enjoy it – but I wasn’t prepared for how they begged for more!

So I’m launching a new one exploring the United State’s Race to the Moon, and have another in the works exploring volcanoes! The kids are going to lose their minds. Ha!

The Race to the Moon is a bit longer and more involved and will take about two weeks for my kids to complete. I’ve dug up YouTube videos to accompany each riddle which has completely re-inspired me in what a country can do when we’re all championing the same cause.

We may not be able to all get behind climate change, healthcare or education systems, or how even our country is run – but I’m pretty sure you’re here because you can get behind being creative in your classroom and engaging your students in a fun and unique way. Let’s get behind that together.

So here are some of my secrets for creating these units:

  1. Choosing a Topic – What’s your specialty? Language arts? Choose a book you’re studying! Science? Incorporate labs into your challenges.
  2. Perspective – Our Ancient Egypt study was broad enough to be multi-disciplinary but we tucked facts into each riddle. Our Race to Moon unit walked students through the timelines of each launch, and the progress (and failures) necessary for the US to set foot on the moon. Our volcano lesson is in progress, but this one is more of a story line of a fictional character who lives in Herculaneum in Ancient Rome who is nervous that the mountain, Vesuvius, is going to erupt and destroy his family and their home.
  3. Challenges – This is where it gets fun! My original ideas spurred from a few of the escape room ideas, but I’ve since branched out. From finding differences in pictures, to solving secret codes, to solving math problems.
  4. Creating the Incentive – This one is a piece of cake. Break up your students into small team and let them after the game. Competition will entice your students to keep after each answer even when the riddles get tough! The Race to the Moon is a bit more involved and we added a currency portion that adds an extra element of fun (and an assessment activity similar to Jeopardy where they can leverage their currency to win!).
  5. Assessment – Speaking of assessments…these are some of the easiest assessments in my experience because the kids don’t have the aversion to traditional assessments. We build a pyramid in the Ancient Egypt program…they have no idea they’re being tested!
  6. Have fun – Seriously. Your students are going to have fun if you get into experience with them. Build a pyramid! Launch a rocket! Explore lava! Don’t forget to be allow yourself to be in awe and let that spark fuel your lessons.

Still not sure where to start? Give ours a try and then come back and tell us what you create!

Critical Thinking Classroom Team Challenge Multi D

Escape with the Pharaoh’s Treasure!

Critical Thinking Team Challenge Activity

Escape the Launch Pad – Race to the Moon!

Critical Thinking Team Challenge Activity

How to Design an Awesome Maker Space to Bust Summer Boredom

Summer is just around the corner and it is time for me to get our Maker Space at home back into full gear before school lets out! We moved last fall and we haven’t found a great place to set up our Maker Space.  Although our house is significantly larger (we were in an 850 square foot house – so everything is bigger here!), I’m still gauging how we use this new space. I find that my son is generally within 20 feet from me (probably because that’s as far as we could get from each other during the first five years of his life because of the 850 square feet we occupied!).  So here we’ve been for six months using any space around this place as our Maker Space. The kitchen table. The coffee table. The LEGO table. The basement. The floor! We have a great space upstairs that is almost like a small loft, but I’m afraid it won’t be used as often as if we keep it on our main level (ahem, that 20-feet-from-me-at-all-times-issue). Plus, we have the great fun of having my 13 year old niece and almost-9-year-old nephew hang out during the summer and having them upstairs removes me from the fun! It’s a real dilemma. What’s not a dilemma: Learning. Learning doesn’t have to halt simply because summer vacation is here. Learning should be fun, exciting, and spark curiosity especially during the summer!

We originally established a Maker Space in our home to encourage this mindset. What exactly is a Maker Space? Definitions vary, but we define it as, “A place to encourage and inspire children to challenge themselves, to explore, to learn to think creatively, critically, and problem solve.” Your child may have a Maker Space at school, but it can also be set up in your home. A small table, desk or workbench will get you started. As I shared above, right now our Maker Space is fluid. During the summer we extend it to a workbench outside. What does matter is giving your child the freedom to explore ideas, to be successful and even permission to fail.

Inevitably, your child will create a project and it will fail. A perfect example of this is a boat my son wanted to design this winter. He watched a youtube video of a homemade steam powered boat and went to work building it. I took one look at it and knew it wasn’t going to work like in the video. But he was determined and it did float and sort of work before capsizing! A year ago, this same kid would have been angry and quit. But this time, he had a breakthrough. He laughed and we talked about what might have make it sink and what he could change for the next round. And he went right back to work.

No matter your age, failure is a part of life and we use our Maker Space to help our son learn to navigate that process and contribute to a growth mindset. My son is not naturally prone to a growth mindset (and to be honest, neither am I!). Giving him the opportunity to fail in a safe environment has helped him develop greater creativity and persistence.

How to get a Maker Space started in your home:

For young children, dig out your craft supplies. My son was about three years old when we really dove in. By four, he was using a hot glue gun under close supervision. Now, at age five, he uses it on his own. You know your children best – guide them, teach them, and train them to use various tools.

CAUTION: Don’t stand in their way. When Finn was really young, my dad scolded me for doing something for him that he could figure out on his own. He struggled, but he ultimately got it. It was the most difficult lesson of parenting that I have learned. In fact, I’m still learning it. Often I have to ask myself, “Is this something that he can do for himself? Or learn to do for himself with training?”…and more often than not, the answer is yes. Parents let go of the control. Seriously. It has given Finn confidence, motivation, and drive. He is a better person for it. He is more engaged and curious because I allow him to go!

Back to the craft supplies…Make materials available and accessible. Some ideas to get you started:

  • clean recyclables
  • cardboard
  • duct tape, masking tape, scotch tape
  • glue
  • scissors
  • pipe cleaners
  • straws
  • craft sticks
  • string
  • beads
  • wood
  • paint

Start with materials that you already have. Don’t feel the need to run out and buy anything until you get a good feel for what you have. You may not even need to buy anything (other than duct tape and hot glue. I’m perpetually restocking these!).

Alternative resources:
I don’t always know how to do what he is imagining, so we use the internet to search for tutorials and videos. Sometimes, I give him a challenge, other times I let him explore on his own. We generally come back to testing and improving, but sometimes we just have fun. The trick is letting go of controlling the process. Allow your child to drive the project and do the work! That’s where engagement and learning are at their best.

Growing with your Maker Space:
Older children continue to enjoy creating with the materials listed above, but can learn additional elements. You may have a child who loves to help in the kitchen. Challenge him or her to create a series of more difficult recipes. Begin with an easy recipe, maybe three or four ingredients and a few steps. Let your child do it! Am I getting point across yet?! It is very difficult to let go of control. It might get messy. It might not taste great. But one recipe at a time, your child will develop and improve. Before you know it, you might get a day off from cooking dinner (#momgoals).

Older kids can also explore more in-depth concepts. We build cardboard and duct tape boats and test them on a local lake. We love circuits and use inexpensive SMD LEDs and copper tape from SparkFun. Explore coding through a free program: Scratch, from MIT. Teach how to use tools and give your child access to wood, nails and screws. Encourage your child to plan by sketching and listing required materials before building. If your kid is into LEGOs, give stop-motion video a try. The possibilities are endless.


Maker Spaces don’t need expensive equipment. They do need adults willing to support through trials, the freedom to try something new, and a bit of grace when things get messy. Join in the fun once in awhile! Everyone can benefit from making.

Check out our guide to Designing a Maker Space – it can be used in both a classroom or home setting!

Experimenting with Hydroponic Gardening to Grow Strawberries

STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

If you’re new to our blog, welcome! We generally talk education topics like STEM, STEAM, science, hands-on learning and maker spaces. But in our spare time, we tinker! And now that Jerry of Brain Brigade has officially retired from teaching…he has MORE spare time! We have been involved in many hydroponic and aquaponics projects in the classroom and maker space, but we have been diving in to various hydroponic methods of growing plants at home.

Last summer I visited Iowa and I noticed a really clever hydroponic tower that was growing lettuce. It was made of PVC pipe that wound around a central tower. I thought that the idea was great. It was compact and allowed for maximum use of growing space for sunlight and circulation of nutrient solution. This winter I began to wonder if something like this could be used to grow strawberries hydroponically. After a bit of research, I decided that I would try to make a tower similar to the one that I has seen.

STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

This is a photo I took in Iowa of lettuce growing on a hydroponic tower.

As I looked at 4 inch PVC pipe I soon realized that it was very heavy and expensive. I decided to use a lighter plastic pipe that I found at Home Depot. It used the same 90 degree elbows that the heavier pipe used. I first constructed the frame that I would mount it on using 1 ½ inch PVC, elbows and a cross piece at the top to connect all of the frame. I mounted this frame on a wooden base and drilled holes to secure it with bolts. Next, I determined that the PVC pipe surrounding the frame would have to be cut at 25 inches. I bored 3 inch holes in the pipe using a circle drill and mounted the pieces to the frame using plastic straps and bolts. I also purchased a 10 gallon tub for my nutrient solution that sits inside the bottom middle of the frame.STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

I ordered 50 strawberry plants from Jung’s called Tristar that is ideal for hanging baskets and produces a crop in summer and in fall. I also ordered strawberry nutrient from Amazon. My only concern, is that the pipe connections at the elbows will leak because I have not cemented them with PVC cement. I will use my pump from my hydroponic system in my basement to pump the nutrient solution to the plants. I won’t be using the pump during the summer, so it’s a nice way to utilize my materials all year long! Now. We just need it to get warm around these northern parts!

Maybe you’re thinking, “this is cool…” but aren’t quite ready to take on The Tower quite yet. You could give windowsill hydroponics a try to get your feet wet! It’s an excellent classroom project too.

How to Light Up Your Classroom with Bright LEDs

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

In this step-by-step tutorial, we show you how we used SMD LEDs and copper tape to create a parallel circuit. The result is a glowing spring card to share with a friend! This project is easy. A perfect beginner activity for introducing LEDs as a STEM or science concept in your classroom. Students will be deLIGHTED {pun intended!} to see their project glow. Get the full download here that includes the printable card and copper tape diagram and information on where we purchased our inexpensive supplies!

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 1:
You will notice that the SMD LEDs come in a black strip of 25 small compartments. The tiny lights  can be removed by peeling the strip of clear plastic off of the back of the black strip. As you do this, the small lights will fall out of their containers. Make sure to catch them and place them in a container that you can label and seal so you don’t lose them. I separate by color.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 2:
Print out the card templates on cardstock or heavy paper. Choose two-sided print so that the two pages prints to one sheet of paper. You can also design your own card by drawing or using a computer program to create your desired design.
Step 3:
Fold card in half so that the flowers (or your design) are on the outside. The card will open at the bottom and you should be able to see the inside of the card. This includes the circuit template and personal message lines.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space
Step 4:
Open the template back up. Punch holes in the center of each of the flowers. You can use a long hole punch, a paper piercing tool, a sharp pen or pencil, or any other tool you have around.
Our paper punch wasn’t long enough to reach, so we used a tiny screwdriver. We placed our card on a stack of scrap paper to protect the table. Next, we carefully scored around the circle with the edge, pushing firmly but not through the paper. Then we gently pressed around the edge, once again following the edge of the circle and the center circle popped out leaving a
small hole.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space
Step 5:
Once you have created a hole in each of the flowers, fold the card back up. Mark you hole location using a marker. The marker will leave a dot on your card template that will show you where to place your LED.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space
Step 6:
Locate the dark gray lines on the diagram. You will be placing copper tape strips on the lines. If you are designing your own, simply look where you have marked your LED placements. We had three flowers, and used three LEDs. This is where you will need to map out how you run your copper tape.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space
Step 7:
Begin placing the copper tape on the negative (-) side of the diagram, peel off the backing so that the sticky side adheres to the paper.  For your personal design, begin placing the copper tape on one side of the LED dots, keeping one long piece of tape that will run to the battery. The negative side will go under the battery and make contact with the negative terminal on  the battery.
TIP: When making a turn with your copper tape, first fold the tape in the opposite direction of the way you want to go. Then fold it back into the direction and smooth when you are complete.

 

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 8:
Use the side of a pen or marker to smooth the copper tape to the paper.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 9:
Locate the positive side of each circuit and place the copper tape. Place the battery positive (+) side up in the circle. If designing your own, you will once again locate your LED marks and run the copper tape parallel to the first copper tape you placed.
TIP: Place the positive (+) tape VERY close, but not touching the negative (-) side of tape. The strips of copper tape must be very close so that the tiny LED can connect to both sides, but if the tape touches it will short circuit!

 

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 10:
When you get to the battery, stick the copper tape to the positive (+) side of the battery which should be facing up. See photo for close up details.
Step 11:
Using scotch tape, adhere your battery to the cardstock so that it doesn’t move around.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 12:
Time to get out your SMD LEDs! Take a closer look at your LED bulb. You’ll notice a clear side, and if you turn it over, a flat side with a green “T”. This is important for knowing which side is the positive (+) and the negative (-). Energy can only flow through an LED one way, so you must put it on the copper tape the correct way so that it lights up. The top of the “T” attaches to the positive (+) side of the copper tape. When you place your LED, look at the “T” before sticking to the tape!

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 13:
To place, we use a small piece of scotch tape to “grab” onto the top of the LED (the clear part). Then lift the tape and LED up and look at the “T” on the bottom. Use the tape to adhere the LED onto the mark that you made in Step 5. If you have the LED on the correct way, it should light up!
Step 14:
If the bulb doesn’t light up, remove the LED, rotate it 180 degrees. You may have had the positive and negative connections placed wrong. Test again. If it still doesn’t work, review our troubleshooting guide.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 15:
Place the other two LEDs following the same process.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

Step 16:
Build a switch! To turn off your card, simply slide a small piece of paper under the battery to disrupt the current between the negative terminal of the battery and the copper tape!

Check out the full tutorial with the download here!

 

Here’s the same card, but with two switches! Check out the tutorial for this advanced LED project here.

How to Troubleshoot LEDs Like a Pro

LEDs STEAM STEM Maker Space Classroom Science

A huge part of our teaching philosophy is to help students develop persistence and become proficient at problem solving. But developing those skills isn’t always easy. We live it out around here so that it’s easier to teach in the classroom. We tinker in our spare time. We encourage the kids {actually, everyone} in our family to ask questions and work out solutions. We often ask for help and work together to solve a problem. We recently finished a new light up project; a greeting card that celebrates spring. We designed a cover with three flowers and put our tiny LED lights so that when the card is closed, the LEDs light up and illuminate the flowers. This particular circuit had two switches that were activated by a finger push. Since we were operating two switches from the same battery, we needed to hard wire the battery into the circuit and place different circuits for the lights. It was tricky to say the least, and since I had not tried this before, it took some time to think it through.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

I’m still not convinced that I have the best circuit path for this project. My plan had a small finger push button for each light. When I pushed down on a spot, a piece of copper tape that was stuck on the inside cover of the card made contact with the broken circuit of one light and completed the circuit thereby causing the light to come on. Needless to say, much tweaking was needed.

First, I had to make sure that the copper tape that completed the circuit was positioned exactly above the break in the circuit, so when I pushed down it contacted both ends of the broken circuit. Next, there seemed to be a problem with the LED lights that were in the circuit. I just could not get them to stay on. I finally determined that the copper tape was too close together and the lights were actually shorting themselves out.

Next, the circuit began to act up again and would not consistently light the bulbs. In checking and rechecking the circuit I found where the copper tape touched the battery, it was making contact with both the positive and negative portion or the battery and shorting the circuit.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

At times, it can be very frustrating troubleshooting whether it is circuits or programming. What I have learned from this is that there are many ways a circuit can fail. Hopefully, in the future it will help me problem solve more quickly.

You can try this card – we have two tutorials – a beginner version with no switches and an advanced version with the two switches!

Creating an Authentic Learning Environment in Your Classroom

What does it mean to have a Maker Space in your school? There is not a standard definition of what a maker space, maker lab, or tinkering corner should be. It can be as simple as a corner of your classroom where students can tinker, disassemble a broken computer, make a truss bridge with craft sticks, or just experiment with some safe chemicals. Making, tinkering, hacking are all terms tossed around liberally. But what does it mean in your classroom? The challenge is to allow your students to explore something that peaks their interest. Something that causes them to be engaged and ask questions. Allow your students to try something new and unknown. When you allow a child’s curiosity to drive his or her education, he or she will blow through barriers and boundaries that they’ve set on themselves and sometimes even that you’ve unknowing held.

The whole premise is to get ideas flowing, to fail and find solutions through trial and error, to answer the question what if? Or, it can be a dedicated room where there are many high tech machines that can create almost anything you need or want. The two primary factors are cost and space. You can make it what you want based on funding and space and your own comfort zone. The important thing is to get students tinkering, creating, being curious and making connections to real life….authentic learning. Just do it!

Take the first step. Get out of your rut, step into a world where you learn along with your students. Your students will love the experience and will benefit in ways that you couldn’t imagine.
Once I challenged my students to design a cardboard and duct tape boat that could hold two of them. The finished boat could have only one layer of water-proofing on the exterior. This simple challenge excited them so much that they were doing research on designs, building prototypes and discussing the best way to build their yachts. Of course, some just dove in and started building without any idea of how to do it, but isn’t that what it is all about?
Learning by doing, failing, trying again, and finally reaching success.
Too often, as teachers we want students to follow our guidelines because we are the “experts”, and for purposes of efficiency we can save time. But by making things easier for our students we are missing an important piece in the learning puzzle. Two key ideas, choice and trial and error, are critical to creativity and learning.
Check out our FREE Makers Space resource to learn more about how you can incorporate making in your classroom! Looking for some inspiration? Join our Facebook collaboration board for educators!

My Season of Hydroponics

If you’d like to try hydroponics in your maker space or classroom it is a great way to get kids to fabricate, problem solve, make mistakes and experience authentic learning. Many designs for simple hydroponic systems exist online with inexpensive materials. The activity is a perfect STEM activity and integrates math, science and a bit of chemistry into a unit or lesson. You also don’t need a lot of room and can even do it on a windowsill!

Sue and I have also moved from a small condo to a ranch home, so these past three months have been hectic to say the least! We are now in the middle of a full scale remodel. As I type this, carpenters and electricians are working. Jolene and her husband, Phil, also moved. The entire Brain Brigade Team has been shaken up. We’re finally settling back into our Brain Brigade routine and it feels good to be back!

My winter season has been devoted to growing my greens hydroponically. I have also just completed a hydroponic strawberry tower. I can’t wait for spring to get here so I can get  the strawberries growing! I will grow the strawberries outside using my system.

My lettuce is doing great but my spinach is not so great. As you can see by the photo, the spinach is in the foreground and is quite twiggy. I think the pH may be off for the spinach. I’ll do some small adjustments to see if it responds. I began the lettuce and spinach about three weeks before transporting them into my hydroponics system. The floating bed has nutrient solution flowing past the roots. My system is about 24 inches wide and about five feet long. It is made of 2x4s with a bottom of plywood. In this box a pond liner coats the bottom and sides and a hole is bored through the bottom on the plywood at one end. The nutrient solution is pumped up to the box and flows past the roots and down the drain back to the reservoir. I’ve been enjoying lettuce all winter, picked fresh right from my basement. It doesn’t get better than that!

This can be done in a classroom, too! We have highlighted some steps in a series on hydroponics earlier in the blog. Start here to begin learning more!