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!

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!

Introducing LEDs and Bright Fun to Your Students!


LEDs, or their long name, “Light Emitting Diodes” offer a great deal of cheap, impressive fun in a classroom or Maker Space. We’ve used LEDs with students as young as third grade with great success. Students can explore and create incredible projects once they understand the basics of LEDs. Using SMD LEDs offers many learning opportunities for exploring circuits, trial and error and persistence. Plus, they’re inexpensive…a bonus when you get big results without blowing your classroom budget.

When first exploring LEDs, I was intimidated. My first order from Sparkfun arrived and I couldn’t get the LEDs to work. As it turns out, I didn’t have the LEDs removed from the packaging correctly {true story!}. The first time I placed the LED onto the copper tape it lit up like magic. I was hooked. I wanted to light up everything in sight. It was like a new toy. What else could I make glow?

Completed 3D Washington Monument. It glows red like the real one {Safety first. I think so planes don’t hit it!}.

We’ve been using these powerful little lights mostly to enhance paper projects. We enjoy using them because of their low power consumption and long life span. They have great luminosity and can brighten a dark room. LEDs are great for teaching polarity because the energy can only flow one way through the light. They’re powerful and impressive. And kids love them.

Even Leprechaun’s are rumored to love LEDs!

After my own trials {ahem, having fun}, I was ready to bring them to the Maker Space. I started the students off with some holiday cards that had a template to follow. We created one where Rudolph’s nose glows and the other a Christmas Tree. Then we got crazy. We created a light-up, pop-up 3D glowing Valentine’s Day card. We built a 3D Washington Monument that lights up like the real deal! We made a simple St. Patrick’s Day card for younger students. And we keep exploring…most recently we created a Spring Card that has two switches. So.Much.Fun.

 

Experimenting with LEDs. How many can you light up at once and for how long?

The kids enjoy it as much as I do! I have had middle school students have great success. Once they grasp the basic understanding of parallel circuits, how to make switches and comprehend what a short circuit is, they incorporate them into their own projects.

We’re now experimenting to determine how long 14 LED lights will stay lit off of a coin cell battery. They were still glowing after an hour. With this new information, we hope to incorporate these LEDs into light up constellations that can be made into an interactive bulletin board where a student can press a button and see the constellation light up! We’ll keep you posted!

These are the Good Old Days

Exciting times. Kids today get to hang out in Maker Spaces and Maker Labs, smartphone in one hand and an Ipad in the other. Educators recognize that students need creative and curiosity-enhancing activities to develop problem solving skills and grit. Failure is acceptable. “We learn from failure.” “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t doing anything.” If you make a typo, you hit the backspace or let autocorrect take care of it. Life is good!

If you are yearning for the good old days, just turn off the air conditioning. Griff Niblack.

If you are yearning for the good old days, just turn off the air conditioning. Griff Niblack.

It’s Mrs. Brainiac and today’s subject is about how kids today have it made.

A few decades ago, schools had something called “home economics.” Girls took that class. It was all about cooking and sewing. Boys had “shop.” They used tools to make little wooden toys with wheels that you could pull with a string. And birdhouses. Sure, that’s all good. But what if the girls wanted to use a drill or saw? Or the boys wanted to whip up a fabulous cheese tortellini with sage and browned butter sauce? Wasn’t going to happen on that teacher’s watch! So many limits imposed on kids. Today, if a second grader wants to use an electric saw and cut up some wood and build a mini roller coaster to launch on the school grounds, just ask Brainiac Jerry. A girl wants to build a trebuchet and launch pumpkins and bowling balls on the playground, no problem.

Educators today identify that the creative process is a good thing to encourage. Kids that engage in engineering design process creating a Maker Space project can grow up to be engineers. Or chefs or app writers or whatever they want. The sky is the limit when it comes to the opportunities available to students in today’s world.

I’m not saying today’s world is perfect, it’s far from it. But we seem to have a raised social consciousness that makes me feel a bit hopeful. In spite of all the scary stuff we see on the news and hear on social media or even experience ourselves, there are still a lot of positive improvements that have come about over the last few decades.

Old boring food pyramid

Old boring food pyramid

USDA MyPlate is colorful and fun!

USDA MyPlate is colorful and fun!

 

Some examples from my lifetime…when I was a little girl, female teachers had to wear dresses and stockings to school. Girl students had to wear dresses. What’s the big deal, right? Ask me that in January while you are walking to school in 10 degree weather.

School girl circa 1965

School girl circa 1965

If kids were cognitively challenged, they could end up in a special class or a special school or in an institution of some kind. Now, we try to find ways to help them learn and develop skills to become a productive and happy member of society.

Until the 1970’s, there wasn’t much of a foster care system or a social services agency. Emergency Medical Services barely existed. Most areas might have an ambulance but there were no training requirements and barely any real first aid performed. It was just a vehicle to drive you to the hospital, sometimes equipped with just a driver and no other personnel.

Okay, I know you are arguing in your head with me that the good old days when Mrs. Brainiac was young were better, safer and more innocent then today. If that is the case, then how do you explain “The Art Project Every Child Made for Their Parents.”

Gather round while Mrs. Brainiac tells the tale of a classroom full of fresh faced little cherubs excitedly molding doughy blobs of clay into a gift for their parents. Each day, they would carefully wrap it in wet paper towels to keep it moist, working on it day after day until the exciting day that we fired up the kiln. The kiln would heat up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (KilnTempChart) while emitting fumes including carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, hydrogen fluoride and toxic metal vapors. So, stay with me, kids….we have a kiln going at 2,000 degrees in an art room with dangerous fumes permeating the entire school ventilation system, all to bake a lovely gift for mom and dad. Yes, kids risked their lives to make an ASHTRAY for their parents. A lovely little poop-colored clay carcinogenic ash receptacle that now has cooled off enough to coat with a lead-based glaze.

Fortunately for the teachers, they could retreat to the “smoking lounge” to take a break from the heat the kiln generated.

Not an ashtray. Made in Wisconsin 2016.

Not an ashtray. Made in Wisconsin 2016.

“And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days. These are the good old days.” Anticipation, sung by Carly Simon.

Being Too Busy is Really Being Greedy

Spring Fun

Spring Fun

Mrs.  Brainiac back with the answer to last week’s math problem. Last week, we discussed how Jolene Brainiac has been nagging Mrs. Brainiac to post her Friday blog updates. “Come on, Mom. It’s not that hard to share some creative thoughts about Maker Space and science projects, maybe something about turning failure into success or how to engage kids’ natural curiosity about science by providing meaningful activities that spark enthusiasm about learning.”

Blah, blah, blah, Brainiac Jolene.

Summer Fun

Summer Fun

The common denominator is “H” which stands for Husband Brainiac Jerry. So, even though I freed up a great deal of time by eliminating a bunch of other activities, I still have the Head Brainiac around. So, we have been traveling, working on Brain Brigade projects, bike riding and pretty much just having a good old time.

I hope this explains why I was too busy to post my blog. I was having Too Much Fun.

The blog wasn’t the only area of my responsibilities that was neglected due to having Too Much Fun. I forgot to empty the kitchen compost container and it sort of took on a life of its own.

Compost Fun

Compost Fun

So how do we get away from all this talk of being too busy and overwhelmed by all our activities and responsibilities? How do we slow down and smell the roses?

Part of the problem is we need to “learn to say no.” We all know that already but yet we continue to say “yes.” Let’s delve into that. Why is it so hard to say “no” when someone asks for help with a project, or to volunteer for an activity or even just to meet up with the girls and have coffee? We say “yes” and then spend the next week complaining or stressing that we should have said no. We even say, “I need to learn to say “no.””

Revelation coming: We don’t say “no” because we really do want to do whatever it was! True! We want to do those things, whether volunteering for a worthy cause or visiting with friends. What we don’t want to do is spend our valuable time doing these things. Confused?

Let me say that again. We actually do want to volunteer at the local charity fundraiser. But we want to sit around and watch TV or read a book more than we want to work at the fundraiser. And, you can’t have it all.

The reason you can’t say “no” is because it’s stuff that matters. So, we need to “learn to say no to the things we want to do.” Not all of them, but enough that we can de-stress and relax a bit.

It’s sort of like wanting too many things (being greedy). I think we can probably agree that it’s okay to want things, a nice car, decent home, a meal out once in a while. But can we all agree that we shouldn’t get everything we want? If we get everything we want, we would have nothing to look forward to. We already have it all. It’s GREEDY.

It’s the same thing with wanting to do all the activities that are available to you (again, being greedy). So go ahead and do some volunteering, read some books, hang out with friends or family. But realize that sometimes you have to say “no” to the things you want to do in the interest of getting to ENJOY the other things you are doing. Don’t be GREEDY.

And right now, I’m enjoying writing this blog. And I said “no” to something else I wanted to do (which was making myself a snack). And next time I tell you I’m too busy, feel free to tell me to quit being greedy.

Florida Fun

Florida Fun

 

Taking the Leap from Traditional Teaching to Hands On Learning

CampPhoto

As a retired teacher, I now have time to focus on the things that I am really passionate about. Other than my family and traveling, I am very concerned about climate change and maker spaces. Yesterday, my former administrator asked me to make a visit to seventh and eighth grade camp. I began the camp program during my last year at school and it is great to see it being carried on. Camp is a great example of authentic learning that is challenging and novel. Students really love the three days of camp, I believe because it gets them out of the classroom where lessons are so rigid. They love the camaraderie, the hands on learning, and the adventure and play involved in camp. So much so that they don’t even realize that they are engaged in learning.

The real challenge as teachers is how to we incorporate these concepts into our day-to-day lessons? Enter the maker space. Every discipline that we teach and every lesson that we teach should be examined for ways to correlate it to making. Can we study history and have students build a pyramid, a 3-D Washington Monument, a trebuchet? In English and literature can we have them write a script, make a set, act in a play? In Science, can they make a solar cooker, a hydroponic garden, build a circuit or rocket. There is NO limit to making your curriculum much more dynamic and giving children an exciting learning experience. It is just a matter of using your imagination, taking small steps, and building your repertoire of activities over the course of your career. Taking those steps will make you a better, more creative teacher, will enrich the learning of your students and will make your job much more fun and enjoyable.

Why not start today?

If you’re not sure where to begin, we’d love to help you. Download Designing a Maker Space today to get you started! Contact us or download some activities to get you started. One of our favorite methods to install this type of learning is through a Maker Space (or MakerSpace, Tinker Lab, Maker Lab and a variety of other names!). Sign up for our newsletter for ideas and support that we share with our Maker Space network!