Using Escape Rooms to Gamify Learning: an interview with Breakout EDU

Below is a re-post from my latest column on DMLcentral. Read it here or check it out below:

Using Escape Rooms to Gamify Learning


Escape Rooms first came to America in 2012-2013 from Asia and Europe, quickly spreading across the country. As defined by Professor Scott Nicholson, “escape rooms are live action team based games where players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal (usually escaping from the room) in a limited amount of time.” It should come as little surprise, but before long, innovative educators were adapting the escape room format for a wide-range of content.

minecraft-escape-roomLast year, at Minefaire, I met Adam Bellow. Adam was honored by ISTE in 2011 as Outstanding Young Educator of the Year. He founded both eduTecher and eduClipper. At Minefaire, however, Adam was doing something new: running a Minecraft-themed escape room, promoting his growing company Breakout EDU. Supporting educators to bring escape rooms into learning settings, Breakout EDU offers kits and curriculum for an emerging community of games-based learning educators.

Before long, we developed a program at my day job (the American Museum of Natural History)  to work with youth to create a prototype for an escape room, with an astro theme, using mixed reality (a Microsoft Hololens). Between advising sessions, Adam and I sat down to talk about the history of escape rooms, education and digital learning.

Adam, for the uninitiated, just what is an escape room?

Escape rooms are physical spaces that started popping up around the world about a decade ago where small groups of people (usually 4-10) get locked into a room and are challenged to solve a series of puzzles in order to escape. While the theme of the room and the particular scenarios vary drastically, from things like “Escape the Zombie Hospital” to “Escape the Prison,” there are usually a few key similarities between all the games.

In most games, the players have a 60-minute time limit to escape. Players are encouraged to collaborate and work as a team — even if the group is made of strangers. Players are watched by a facilitator (usually on closed circuit TV systems) and can make use of a limited number of hints when needed. These rooms have become quite popular and can be found in most major cities around the world.

I went to my first escape room a year and a half ago with some friends. It was a blast but I couldn’t see how the puzzles might work in a museum context. A few months later, at the Games, Learning and Society Conference, I experienced a version of a room that had been developed by Scott Nicholson, at a historic fort in upstate New York. This time, the puzzles had historical resonance, connected to the history of the fort, and the way soldiers in the revolutionary war had used cryptography. Hazzah! Escape rooms could be used for public education. When did you first come across escape rooms, and when did you realize they had educational potential?

Scott is a great guy and has been a big fan of Breakout EDU.

His White Paper on escape rooms is invaluable and a great place for anyone to start.

He actually just won an award for his Breakout EDU game, “Ballot Box Bumble.”

I personally found out about escape rooms the week after my friend and co-founder of Breakout EDU, James Sanders, went to one. He was telling me about how he had gone to an escape room with some educators and students. He had never seen students work so hard to solve really difficult problems in the classroom and wanted to harness that excitement and level of grit to be part of the school day. That is when Breakout EDU was born.

James told me about the idea and I have to admit that I had my doubts. But, they were all removed when I had the privilege of having my first experience of an escape room as a player of the very first Breakout EDU experiment — where there was a locked bag and teachers had to solve a series of complex puzzles in order to break into the bag. Over the following few months, James and his friend Mark Hammons helped to codify the idea and the rest is history. It was clear from the first minute of the game that this was lightning in the bottle. I was immediately on fire with ideas on how this platform in the hands of educators and students would help to change education.

So what is Breakout EDU? How is it helping educators teach content?

Over the next several months, the idea of creating a Breakout EDU box was solidified, a physical kit that could be locked with numerous and different kinds of locks relating to academic puzzles. We began creating and selling these kits in addition to developing an online platform where we could host (and allow others to create and host) games using the materials that we were selling. What started with a small handful of games has grown into a wide-ranging online library of educator-created and shared games that work with the Breakout EDU kit. There are games for all ages and targeting all subject levels. If there isn’t a game that is perfect for your classroom, then the option is always there to use our templates to create one that is and we love to see those games shared back to the community of educators on the site.

Let’s explore the intersection of escape rooms and digital learning. Where do you see the two come together?

Almost all of the Breakout EDU games have both physical and digital elements. Whether it is using the black light to illuminate coordinates that can be researched on the Internet or using automated forms and digital puzzle elements that work in tandem with the real world. We recently launched a series of computer science games that focus on coding problem solving skills. The future is bright for more higher tech puzzle elements. For example, we love games like “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” that engage players in VR and the real world at the same time.

The idea of incorporating elements like blended reality into escape rooms and Breakout EDU is something that we are starting to see and experiment more with. Like all other game elements, when done well, it enhances the experience for the players.

Posted in Interviews | Leave a comment

A Series of Epistolary Romances: Games and Museums

Last year I received a rather unusual request: Would I have a conversation with my friend and colleague James Collins – over many months, like letters sent in days of old – and then publicly share it, inviting others to join in.

The request came from CODE│WORDS, an ongoing effort to “gather and harness the discourse occurring among the museum technology community” – which I guess describes me (as well as James, who formerly worked at the Smithsonian). This experiment is called “A Series of Epistolary Romances” designed to generate and facilitate online discussion about “topics of import to the international museum community… Twelve pairs of authors  will correspond with each other over the course of at least a month about a particular topic of interest to the community.”

Students at Museum teaching parents how to play Gutsy after visiting exhibit on microbiomes.

James was invited to be part of one of these pairs through Ed Rodley, editor of CODE│WORDS and Assoc Dir. of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum, and James invited me to join him in this epistolary romances.

As professionals with long experience in game-based learning in museums, we were interested in exploring and unpacking all the complexities that hide within the seemingly straightforward idea of using games for museums-based learning. As with any intersectional issue, there turns out to be a ton of translation problems and misunderstandings among the domains of museum knowledge, game play, and game design.

Selecting Slack as our correspondence weapon of choice, we spent many months hammering the topic, and occasionally each other. Our correspondence has now come to a close, and we are ready to share it all with you.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll release it all on Medium. Here is where it all begins…

May 27, 2016. 10:28 AM joined #epistolary-correspond

 James, Just a short missive to thank you for hosting me today at your offices at the DOE. It was great to see your new offices, now that you’ve left the Smithsonian, and talk with you about Games-based learning. (Btw, I named this Slack GBLinMuseums, which, when turned lower case, as Slack is wont to, scans as “museum goblins”).

[continue the conversation here…]

Posted in Theory | Tagged | Leave a comment

Virtual Weevil and Video Bridge Featured in A.P. Article

I haven’t posted much about my new position at the Museum these past few months (which I hope to rectify soon) but this lovely A.P. piece, “5 Ways Museums Are Using Technology for New Experiences,” focuses on a number of museums and includes many examples from AMNH. Two projects with which I’m involved were mentioned:

At a recent special event at the American Museum of Natural History, young visitors tested out virtual reality goggles that “shrank” them to the size of a beetle for a close-up view of the weevil’s anatomy.


“Telepresence robots” — screens mounted on two long poles on wheels — use videoconferencing technology similar to Skype to connect visitors to expert information not quite available from a tour guide.

The American Museum of Natural History tried it out recently at a special event inside its Northwest Coast Indians Hall to beam an indigenous member of the remote Haida Gwaii community into the museum to talk with visitors.

Note: The telepresence robot project, which we call Video Bridge, is done in collaboration with the Haida Gwaii Museum, and is offered the first Saturday of every month.

Posted in From My Work | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The DigitalLearningification of Museums

Below is my post from my latest column on DMLcentral:

This past October, I had the pleasure of presenting in Irvine, California at the new home for the Digital Media and Learning Conference on digital learning at museums. With my colleagues Eve Gaus of The Field Museum and Rik Panganiban of the California Academy of Sciences, we tried to identify the leading trends we’ve seen emerging in recent years, given our different vantage points as advocates for digital learning in our respective museums.

Playfully titled “The DigitalLearningification of Informal Learning Centers: Lessons from Three Museums,” we tried to make the case that museums are unique and influential informal learning institutions that can be powerful spaces for young people to learn, connect and create digital media. Museums often have more freedom and resources than a school, library or after-school program to support a variety of digital learning offerings for youth, such as tinkering spaces, youth-led media creation, and exhibit creation. At the same time, museums are moving beyond siloed programs for young people, toward connected learning experiences that better integrate with school-time learning, other institutions that youth are involved in, and their time with their peers.

The major trends we explored:

  • a maturing space
  • youth as co-designers
  • distance learning
  • augmented and virtual reality

A Maturing Space

We each began at our respective institutions four or so years ago. In that time, we’ve each seen digital learning grow and spread within our museums. At The Field, the digital learning team was first institutionalized in 2010, as a way to use technology to engage learners in the museum. A formalized commitment was established with the opening of the Grainger Digital Media Studio in 2012, a digital studio that would host both face-to-face and distance learning programs. At the California Academy of Sciences, the work began five years ago as an independent special project; that project merged into youth programs within the Teacher and Youth Education Department and is now integrated into a suite of youth programming across the education division. A similar process happened at AMNH. Our youth digital learning strategy increased the number of digital tools in use and doubled the use of digital tools of science. Perhaps more importantly, we also deepened the integration of substantive digital practices across often-siloed areas as the sites of digital innovations spread throughout the department.

In other words, at all three museums, pedagogy and practice has been innovated and spread, leaving strong foundations for the years ahead. We’re ready for the next steps.

Youth as Co-designer

We are all seeing youth increasingly treated as not just recipients of knowledge but as co-creatives with the museum to create public-facing informal science learning experiences. There are many examples, from youth councils to game design projects, with topics like whale ecology and global threats to biodiversity. The Field Museum, for example, worked with youth to design curioCITY, a teen-only career night that pairs a scientist with non-scientist to discuss career pathways. The Academy this year launched a youth advisory team called the Teen Think Tank, a group of committed young people who review and give feedback to museum initiatives from new exhibits to social media campaigns and classroom curricula.

Distance Learning

Technology is increasingly bringing visitors into the museum without leaving their home, school or workplace, changing the face of science. At the California Academy of Sciences, their new Science Action Club, a middle school after-school program, has expanded to 350 sites throughout the country, made possible through virtual trainings of frontline educators, using free app-based citizen science tools. At The Field Museum, classrooms across the country are connected to a scientist and educator, who talk about the scientist’s current research and connect that research to what students are learning in the classroom. Interactions like this illustrate that science is an active and ever changing field, that we don’t know all the answers, and works to break down stereotypes about who scientists are and where they work. And all three of us are offering programs and content on sites like Coursera. Khan Academy, iTunesU, and YouTube.


AR/VR has been dominating the news, not just within digital learning but in popular media as well with the rapid spread of Pokémon Go and the development of consumer-grade wearables, like Sony’s new VR goggles. AMNH has launched an innovations lab dedicated to exploring how such tools might offer interactive science data to visitors within our Halls. A CT scan of a Mako shark skeleton augments the one hanging in the Hall of Biodiversity, and can be made to swim and bite. A virtual orchard provides visitors with the opportunity to shrink down to the size of an insect to learn how they breathe without lungs. Meanwhile, at The Field, Google Expeditions are giving teachers VR experiences within their halls.

Posted in Conferences, Practice | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dec Update: Walking Amongst the Stars

This post is part of an ongoing monthly series of posts that will focus on our current efforts in the Museum’s Science Bulletins team to create and test prototypes of Hall-based digital interactions using AR and VR using our scientists’ digital science data, and to share some of the lessons we learn along the way.

In December, it was time to shift our attention from the earth to the stars! Not only did this mean looking at astro data, it meant shifting our attention to data that is spatial in nature (and exploring what it meant to interact with spatial data).


Our resource this time was the Digital Universe, developed by the Museum, which incorporates data from dozens of organizations worldwide to create the most complete and accurate 3D atlas of the Universe (from the local solar neighborhood out to the edge of the observable Universe).

The first challenge was finding an opportunity to leverage within the Hall and then taking a thin slice of the D.U. data to present in an interactive way. For our first astro prototyping, we decided to focus on Constellations.

There are four long information walls within the Lower Level of the Hall of the Universe. One is about Stars, with each section featuring its own constellation. We chose Orion to be our inspiration.

Looking up at the night sky, we experience constellations as a 2-dimensional shape, something flat, as if all the stars were the same distance from us. Their true 3-D nature remains hidden, difficult to observe. If we could shift our perspective, however, such as by moving deep into space, we’d see the constellation distort as we learn that some individuals stars are closer to Earth while others are farther away. With our first prototype for the Hall, we aimed to use AR to let visitors experience that distortion as both an engaging experience and an opportunity for learning.

During the first prototype, visitors viewed a virtual Orion constellation on a Tango handheld device, which they could move forward and backwards to see the constellation’s shape change. We saw the connection between the experience and the constellations, but for the visitors… not so much. Many thought the constellation on their screen was spinning when, in fact, the stars stayed in place – it was only their perspective that was changing. A suspicion I had was that constellations work as an abstraction – to help us make something concrete out of the star field – but that this abstraction can break down when turned into 3-D. A constellation consists of imagined lines – a celestial connect-the-dot. Turning a constellation into a 3-D experience means stretching or shortening the lines, as if the lines themselves were something physical being changed. But of course, the lines are still just imaginary, in this case representing not just connections between the stars but now also the different distances amongst them. All this focus on the lines makes the viewer forgot to notice what’s real, the stars, and their real locations in 3-D space. Making it even harder, perhaps, was asking them to break out of their 2-D framework using a device which reinforced a 2-D view (even though the represented data on the screen was 3-D).

Screen Shot 2016-12-15 at 12.19.01 PM

We realized we could go into one of two directions – improve the 2-D experience on the Tango or break out into 3-D with an augmented or mixed-reality experience in a Hololens or a virtual reality in a Vive. 3-D seemed the right way to go but, while that was in development, we adapted something developed earlier to explore a different 2-D option out in the Hall.

To give visitors a less abstract way to understand that the points of lights are objects in relationship to one another, we used Your Face in Space (aka Starface). Using something made in 2014 in BridgeUp Hackathon, Your Face in Space might provide the required context while increasing the level of engagement. With Your Face, visitors using a laptop and its camera to map points around their face and turn those points into a constellation. These points are REAL stars, as seen from earth, in their real relationship, but with lines drawn to show not Orion but your magnificent visage. Once the new constellation appears, the visitor can rotate it to see different perspectives reveals its 3-D nature. While almost no one understood this idea from the first prototype, around half of the visitors got the idea through Your Face in Space. In addition, the older the visitor the more likely they were to understand it. This was a step in the right direction, but we suspected we could get it work even better.

A week later we broke out the Hololens. This time we wanted to learn if experiencing spatial data through an immersive 3D experience is more effective at teaching visitors about constellations sitting in a 3D space, while increasing engagement. Once again, we tested it with all age ranges, inviting them to experience something new and putting them in the Hololens. We invited them first to just look around – noticing the star field around them – and then look for and point to Orion (the pointing is as much to physically engage them as it is to signal us about the orientation of the AR). Once they did we asked the visitor to move around and notice if the shape changes and, if it did, why. This time, almost everyone got the idea – although not everyone – and visitors found it deeply engaging, with dwell times minutes longer than we imagined anyone would be interested.


Some (and far from all) of the key lessons we took away from this round of prototyping:

  • VISITORS desire activities. Visitors jumped at the chance to try something interactive and new. “Would you like to try-” is often as far we got before visitors said “Yes!”.
  • ASTROLOGICAL data is exciting. Visitors were thrilled to interact with astrological data, and spatial data, sharing their experience with their social group and helping them have their own experience.
  • MEDIUM is the message. It was difficult to use Tango’s 2D screen to help visitors realize that constellations sit in 3D space. Switching to the 3D environment of the Hololens felt like a revelation, providing a better fit for the data – immersing visitors in a 3D experience to interact with and better understand spatial data.

Come back soon to see some of what we did, and learned in January.

Posted in From My Work | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Growing Up Minecraft: 6 years of Living and Learning in Minecraft (video)

In October, 2016, my son and I presented together at the Minefair event outside Philadelphia. We presented it on both Sat and Sunday – this video combines the best of the two (big thanks to both my wife and Chris Haskell for the footage, and Steve Isaacs for inviting us both to present).



Wizard Keen (AKA Adam Clarke), the phenomenal Minecraft innovator, who co-hosts Wonder Quest with Stampy, was in the audience on the second day of the presentation. Here’s the lovely tweet he made about it:


If you want to watch more of Akiva’s Let’s Play videos, go here.


Posted in Conferences | Tagged | Leave a comment

Nov Update: Adventures in Virtual Reality

This post is part of an ongoing monthly series of posts that will focus on our current efforts in the Museum’s Science Bulletins team to create and test prototypes of Hall-based digital interactions using AR and VR using our scientists’ digital science data, and to share some of the lessons we learn along the way.

After iterating our AR Shark in October (more here), learning at least one approach towards turning scientific data into a digital interactive, we shifted focus to a different set of biological data. We created a digital interactive based on a scan of a creature that, in comparison with a cuddly shark, was so terrifying it caused the occasional visitor to scream and rip off their virtual reality gear.

By November we started to fall into an effective rapid prototyping routine: pick a set of digitized data, work with a scientist and our crack team to bring it into an AR or VR device, share the interactive prototype in our Halls with the general visitors, and evaluate their response (and, if desired, iterate again and again until we learn something useful and are ready to start from scratch with something new). Friday morning is set aside for public sessions; Friday afternoons for processing what we learned that week.

In November we chose to focus on insects and to explore what we might learn in virtual reality. Using HTC Vive, we created a virtual weevil, placed within a virtual orange grove, that offers visitors the opportunity to explore insect respiration (weevil’s have no lungs!) through click on the critter and taking it apart.

As this was just a 2-3 minute long prototype, albeit an effectively engaging and immersive one, we didn’t fill in the details for every transition. For example, the visitor begins at the human scale, looking around the grove, spotting a tiny weevil on a leaf. However, upon clicking the leaf, the visitor is shrunk down to the insect scale, without much warning nor explanation. As a result, many a poor visitor, looking away from the weevil during the transition, thus unaware they’d changed scales, would turn their head back to find a monster looming overhead, as if poised to attack and devour them. Not our intention, for sure, but their shrieks of delight certainly attested to the deep immersion one can achieve within even a roughly sketched VR experience.

Our experience with the VR Weevil lead me to reflect upon what makes VR so engaging and how that might related to its learning outcomes. My current suspicion is that, with VR, engagement comes first, as the foundation, creating the content for learning. d.001So what makes VR so engaging? VR engagement comes through offering visitors an experience that combines being both (a) embodied and (b) immersive. This is about both place – a location other than one’s own – and self – that you yourself are the subject within that space.

(a) Embodied means you feel like you’re inside the experience, using aspects of your body and your senses, as opposed to experiencing something from the outside. That’s the difference between watching a movie, and being in the movie; playing with a game controllers, versus being the game controller. Users of the VR Weevil often used language that described its embodied nature.

(b) Immersion happens when what you currently see, hear and/or touch is replaced with sights, sounds, and objects that are someplace else (whether real or virtual).

  • With immersive views, that can mean a 360 field of view, where to see everything on view you need to turn your head, or walk around.
  • With immersive audio, that could mean having sound effects, music, and 360 audio (where sound is locked to a location in virtual space).
  • With interactivity, that means more than just touch. It means being able to affect the world around you, perhaps with a gaze, or the sound of your voice.

d.002When there is engagement, when the visitor feels like “they are there” (with equal emphasis on both “they” and “there”), all sorts of learning can happen. When visitors felt engaged by their ability to walk around, view, and interact with a virtual weevil, their curiosity was peaked, and learning could begin. And while 2-3 minutes is a rather short period of time, the vast majority of visitors left the experience able to report something new they had learned about the vast differences between human and insect respiration.

Some (and far from all) of the key lessons we took away from this round of prototyping:

  • IMMERSIVE encounters support engaged learning. Few if any of the students understood in advance they were about to encounter a giant weevil. But once they did, the immersive encounter generated a “need to know” and most picked up the educational content provided by the experience (about how insects breathe and the structure of weevil’s wings).
  • EMBODIED interactions increase engagement. The ability to project one’s body into an experience – in the case of the VR Weevil, through virtual hands, and the ability to walk around the 360 scene – increased visitor’s connection with the virtual world and its content.
  • BRIEF engagements can be still be satisfying when they are intense. The VR Weevil was designed to last no more than three minutes. Yet even after waiting up to 30 minutes for a turn, children responded as if it had all been worth it. We surmise the intensity of the immersion contributed to their satisfaction.
  • IMMERSION can be isolating. As one child reported, “Most people playing a video game are outside. Here you are inside the game.” Another child agreed, reporting, “I was in another world, not just the museum.” The immersive nature of the experience was exciting for these children, but if we aim to deepen their connection with the Museum’s spaces and content, and maintain their connection with the people in their social group, this a challenge we must confront moving forward.

Come back soon to see some of what we did, and learned in December.

Posted in From My Work | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment