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!

You Want to Start a Maker Space. Now What?

You’ve read some blogs, maybe even read a book or two, you follow some insta feeds, and everywhere you go the term “Maker Space” seems to pop up. Hands-on learning is your style. You might even be a little out-of-the-box. Maybe you’re a lot out of the box! You desire to help your students learn how to problem solve and think creatively and be curious. You’re ready to jump in and start a Maker Space in your classroom or school. But where do you begin? Do you need a 3D printer? How big of a space do you need? The beauty of a Maker Space is that there are no rights or wrongs. The challenge of starting a Maker Space is that there are no rights or wrongs! Get my drift? It’s your first Maker Space challenge andyou haven’t even started it up! Get ready, because you are about to grow!

Creating a Maker Space can be something as simple as a small table or desk in a corner of your room. A Maker Space can be as elaborate as a dedicated room or bigger! If you have the space. Determine who will be using this space. Is it your classroom only? You might be collaborating with your other grade level teachers so a dedicated location like a commons area or maybe multiple small stations in multiple classrooms might be the solution. Don’t be afraid to think creatively and be flexible.

Once you have a location figured out you can start it up! It’s okay to start small.  You don’t need a 3D printer make your Maker Space come alive.  Collect clean recyclables and get some bins to sort them in. In fact, if you see a sale on bins, buy more. {You can thank me later!} Make tools available to your students {glue, scissors, a hole punch, scotch tape, masking tape, duct tape, maybe some small hand tools, hot glue gun}. Other materials such as string, craft sticks, pom poms, pasta,  straws…. Let your students start exploring when they have some down time or indoor recess.

Teach your students how to use tools responsibly. Wear safety glasses if needed. We have a five year old who uses the hot glue gun to glue and an eight year old who also uses a hot glue gun to glue and weld! Know your students and let them take on some responsibility and calculated risk. Chances are, many other students will quickly display their ability to be mature when the reward is good!

Once your students are familiar with the Space, offer them challenges. How tall can you build a tower? Build a bridge and see how much weight it can hold. Build a car and see how far it can roll down a ramp.

Need more help? Check out our guide to Designing a Maker Space. We include a huge list of ideas for stocking your Space, funding your Maker Space, four pages of links to incredible resources to help you to spur creativity!

Source: I find some amazing work at Freepik.com. The rockets on my image are from there!

Confessions of a Maker Space Volunteer: Day 1

I started volunteering in the Maker Space at my son’s elementary school a few weeks into the school year. The students had already begun their projects. Their challenge? To design a toy. They had researched and designed their projects on paper and had begun the building phase using engineering design principles. My first morning, the Maker Space teacher/hero, Mrs. H, introduced me and then set me free to the kids. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I was in the risk taking zone. And in that moment, I was afraid of failing.

I knew some of what a Maker Space is because I had been in my dad’s Maker Space at his school a handful of times before he retired. I knew and understood and completely agree with the philosophy of a Maker Space. I had never actually been the one to troubleshoot with students. My own son, yes. My niece and nephew, yes. But to troubleshoot a classroom full of kids? Field their questions? Prioritize requests for help from what felt like ten groups at once!? Everyone needed something from me (or Mrs. H) and I dove in.

Let’s back up a bit. Mrs. H made me out to be waaaaay more of an expert than what I really am. I mean, look at me! I’m a mom in my 30s. Sometimes I wear glasses to make me smarter. Did Mrs. H really think that I should be in this room helping innocent children!?

do-these-glasses-make-me-smarter

Do glasses make me smarter?

I looked at those fourth graders and fear swelled inside my soul. I dove in. I started looking at projects. I began troubleshooting. My first intimidating task: a student needed a hole drilled in wood. I’ve never done that on my own before. Always with the help of my dad or my husband. But I knew how to put a drill bit in. And I knew how to use the drill. So I tackled it. And I did okay. And the student was thrilled!

Before I knew it, 50 minutes was gone. Mrs. H rang a bell, and the kids reluctantly gave up their work and started furiously cleaning up every surface in the room. {Side note: Impressive, Mrs. H. Impressive.} The floors swept, the tables cleared, students lined up and filed out.

Five minutes later, a class of third graders filed in, pulling projects from their silver rack. And we began again. This time, I had a touch of confidence. I had just drilled a hole. I know, pretty amazing. I was feeling good. Until a kid came to me with a 10 foot piece of wood, two inches thick, and 10 inches wide and asked me to cut it.

I had no idea how to use the clamps right, so I asked Mrs. H. She showed me how. I started sawing. The line was crooked. I stopped sawing. I showed the student how to measure to create a straight line (now, that, I taught like a boss!). And I started sawing again. Soon the only sound in the room was the little hand saw chewing through the wood. All eyes were on me. If you’ve never spent time in a Maker Space, it’s NEVER QUIET. But it was silent. Back and forth. I sawed. And sawed. And sawed. Kids started making noise again. Finally, the board hit the tile floor. And the kids started clapping.

I can’t make this up. They clapped. I laughed.

I’m still laughing while thinking about it.

I was hooked. I spend four hours each week in the Maker Space. I wish I could spend the entire day there. My confidence is growing.  And so are my skills. But what’s even better, I’m watching the confidence increase in the students. I’m watching them wrestle with a problem and work through solutions. It’s an exciting place. Terrifying at times, but it doesn’t take long to get past that.

Aquaponics 101

Adding-Tilapia-to-HS-Hydroponics

I’m assisting Oconomowoc High School with the aquaponics system in their greenhouse. So far we have set up two systems with 50 tilapia in one tank and 50 perch in a second tank. We are facing some challenges with our systems from the heat that is building when the outside temperature reaches 70 degrees or above. Tilapia need a water temperature of about 80 degrees, while perch need a water temperature of about 70 degrees. Our greenhouse reaches over 90 degrees and can see temperatures of 110. Before the weather gets too warm we need to find a way to keep the water cool enough for the fish to survive. Enter Travis. Travis is a second shift custodian at the high school and has significant experience in building aquaponics systems. I sat down with him over lunch the other day and was very impressed by his knowledge and experience. Travis has a high school diploma but has so much knowledge that I thought he had a college degree. Travis has had much hands on experience fabricating and problem solving over 150 aquaponic systems. I asked Travis if he had a degree. His response was that he just had a high school diploma but he picked up a lot of money and expertise doing side aquaponics jobs. He also has sought out many experts and used collaboration to build his knowledge.

Our discussion just reinforced my belief that we need more individuals with the ability to fabricate, and to use their hands to build projects that solve problems. I’m very impressed by his ability to think out of the box. After about an hour of talking, we had a solution to our overheating problem. It struck me that what Travis is doing is just the thing I want my students to do. Think out of the box, collaborate, seek expert advice, problem solve. The world could use more people like Travis!

Child Labor Laws-Repeal Them NOW!

Finn Folds

Finn Folds

My sincere apology. Mrs. Brainiac, the long-suffering better half of Brainiac Jerry, is here today to offer a huge apology. I promised Jolene Brainiac I would faithfully write a blog every Friday about creative tinkering, maker spaces, science, engineering, STEM or other engaging hands-on learning activities. Whoops. The last two weeks I neglected this important duty and Jolene Brainiac is on my case to get it done, so here goes.

See Finn Fold

See Finn Fold

I don’t want to make excuses for why I didn’t post my blogs, I just want to EXPLAIN. I’m not sure what the difference between the two is, seems like explaining why I didn’t do it is the same as making excuses but in the interest in getting this blog on the road, let’s continue on.

Finn Folds

Finn Folds

I’m busy. Really busy. I know everyone says that, but I really am busy. Yes, my four kids are grown up and on their own so that should save me some time. And I sold my house and bought a condo so my yard work is done for me. And I don’t volunteer for the fire department since I moved to my condo. I work more regular hours than I used to, not so much overtime.

Finn Does ALL of Grandma Brainiac's work. Finn wonders why Grandma is so busy.

Finn Does ALL of Grandma Brainiac’s work. Finn wonders why Grandma is so busy. She should use a stopwatch to keep on schedule like Finn does.

So, why am I so busy? Don’t know. Seems like the fewer activities and events I’m involved in, the more busy and frazzled I am. I’m guessing there is a math lesson here somewhere, like “if volunteering (V) plus working (W) plus kids (K) plus overtime (OT) plus cleaning (C)  plus husband (H) equals busy (B), then having less V, W, K, OT and C but the same amount of H should equal less then B.” And yet it equals 2B.

So, what is the common denominator here? And why am using a math metaphor in a science blog?

Let’s look at those equations again.

Equation one: V+W+K+OT+C+H=B

Equation two: H=2B

Comment on this blog post if you think you can explain how these two equations correlate to Why I’m Too Busy to Post My Blog Every Friday Like I Promised.

The explanation will be published in my blog next week. If I’m not too, well, you know.

When Buses Fly

I arrive home to a school bus parked in my driveway. The tow truck that brought it is just pulling out. Mrs. Brainiac is here again to share a little more about Jerry Brainiac’s deep rooted craziness. I know the presence of this bus means we are getting involved in another STEM type project. Something creative, scientific, engaging and, yeah, crazy. Another activity designed to instill curiosity about science and technology coming right up. Oh boy. So fun! My mind races with thoughts about what hands on tinkering we will engage in now. In my yard. And driveway. Guaranteed we will learn about technology and science and engineering with this project.

Here we go! A fire truck is pulling in and the guys are bringing out the Jaws of Life to tear out the bus seats. Not as easy as it looks. And Jerry Brainiac is bringing out gallons of white paint and a pile of brushes. And the kids. Of course there will be kids, kids with paint brushes on my driveway. Ahhhh, it’s starting to take shape. It’s a Space Shuttle!

After weeks of this space craft sitting in my parking spot, it now has a big control panel installed, lights, a microwave (astronauts gotta eat), an Apple IIe computer and a bunch of other stuff.

I anxiously await the big day. Not launch day. The day the big shiny tow truck comes back and gets the space shuttle and tows it to the school where the astronauts are waiting in their little space suits that look suspiciously like the paper suits that surgeons wear.

And today is the day. After it arrives at the “launch pad” at “Cape Canavereosho” (if Canaveral and Neosho School were a couple) the astronauts run a giant extension cord out the window of the fourth grade classroom and plug in the shuttle. All systems are go. Ready for lift off. Start the countdown and hope that extension cord is long enough to make it to outer space.

 

The ‘nauts have a great time. They do some experiments with plants, make space meals, eat dehydrated astronaut ice cream which actual astronauts don’t really eat. They play video games on the Apple IIe and generally live the life of an astronaut for the day. Don’t forget to workout, living in low gravity can cause muscle atrophy.

The space shuttle was a huge hit. Everyone in town had watched it evolve from a school bus without an engine to a launch-ready space shuttle. The fourth graders loved planning it all out and took pride in finishing such a huge project. Hands on science and technology is more fun than just reading about it. And when you have fun, you retain more knowledge about the subject and have a greater understanding of the concepts used.

Mrs. Brainiac has many fond memories of the space shuttle school bus and all the weeks it sat in her driveway. Her favorite memory is the day the tow truck came to take it away and blocked the driveway. At the exact time she had to leave for work. What fun it was driving her car across the yard and ditch to get out that day and onto the road! More exciting (and probably more dangerous) then getting to ride in a real space shuttle. Good times!