While Fairfax County, Virginia, public schools held classes virtually in the midst of the pandemic, Matt Hoffert was brainstorming ways to get kids excited about returning to classrooms.
The afterschool program specialist at Luther Jackson Middle School recalled an old computer lab in the back of the school’s library that became excessive when students had laptops assigned to them.
Hoffert, an escape room fanatic, had always hoped to create an interactive student space that required the type of critical thinking, collaboration and strategic planning needed to complete a puzzle and be freed from the game.
On a whim in the fall of 2020, Hoffert sent an email to Bond’s Escape Room, the company behind two escape room locations in Northern Virginia. Two days later, he received a message from the company’s puzzle designer, Andrew Nicholson, eager to begin working. Nicholson said the company had wanted to work with schools for years.
The pair worked to craft the county school system’s first escape room, an academic puzzle for the school’s eighth graders to review material taught in seventh grade. Since the concept debuted earlier this month, it has some students so invested that they asked Hoffert if they can return after school to complete the maze.
“The idea here is to just have a series of puzzles that kind of build off each other,” Hoffert told WTOP. “This isn’t really meant to be a curriculum review activity. This is more like a critical thinking, collaborating activity that happens to include some curriculum elements just to bring it all together.”
Hoffert wanted the puzzle to resemble an actual escape room, rather than one that used printer paper and parts from a hardware store. Construction on the project started in the spring, and all of the pieces arrived over the summer.
When they enter the room, a group of between 10 and 12 students are told the school’s mascot, Jackson the Tiger, has been kidnapped by an evil twin. In order to free him, they have to navigate eight puzzle boxes. In the introductory video, Hoffert tells students everything needed to solve the puzzles is “either in your brain, or in or on one of the boxes.”
Every box has the elements of a puzzle on top, a lock and a door with a magnetic trigger on it. As students progress, they collect curriculum stones, and when they earn the last one, they have the power to rescue the mascot.
Topics at each box range from science, math, history and English. And as is true in traditional escape rooms, the school’s variation has a facilitator who will provide hints if the group gets stuck.
Ideally, Hoffert said, students will work their way through the maze in about 45 minutes.
“We didn’t want to make it too easy,” Hoffert said. “We didn’t want kids to fly through it in 20 minutes and be done. We’re trying to find that balance of not too easy, but not so difficult that it just frustrates everybody and they don’t want to do it anymore.”
Regardless of whether the students are able to free the mascot, Hoffert ends the game by asking what they learned from the experience and which puzzles they felt were the hardest. For him, the students’ determination has proven to be rewarding.
“It’s fun to solve it and win and end the game, but the real learning is that experience where they’re learning to be a good communicator and a good collaborator and a critical thinker,” Hoffert said.
The escape room, Hoffert said, was funded through a partnership with Fairfax-based engineering firm Dewberry.
Because a different group of eighth graders will arrive in the fall, Hoffert said he doesn’t anticipate needing to change much of the puzzle. But he may be pressed to come up with other ideas, as several teachers and librarians from other schools have contacted him asking how to replicate the concept.
“I really wanted something that would get kids talking and get kids excited about being here in the building,” Hoffert said. “Just a feature piece, something cool at our school that we have. It’s been fun to see that come together.”