Sept. 21, 2018

Escape-room experience captures the fun side of chemistry

Multi-disciplinary team incorporated everyday chemistry principles in locked room event at Beakerhead
University of Calgary students including Marissa Clapson, Brian Gilbert, Judy Tran, Shauna Schechtel, and professor Vivian Janet Mozol will present ChemEscape at Beakerhead, a Calgary festival of art, science and engineering.
University of Calgary students including Marissa Clapson, Brian Gilbert, Judy Tran, Shauna Schechtel Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

It was a eureka moment. What if the fun and adventure of the worldwide escape-room phenomenon could be used to promote the understanding of chemistry?

Escape rooms are an adventure game in which players team up to solve a series of puzzles within a set time in order to escape from a locked room. In just a few years, escape rooms have become a global rage, including here in Calgary.

Dr. Vivian Mozol, PhD, and UCalgary chemistry professor, heard grad and undergrad students enthusing about how an escape-room experience could help students learn chemistry and she immediately loved the idea.

“She’s the one who inspired us all to get together and do this,” says Marissa Clapson, chemistry grad student, PhD candidate and co-ordinator of the ChemEscape project that was part of the 2018 Beakerhead festival. Besides Mozol and Clapson, the group included four undergrads, one each from chemistry, kinesiology, psychology and education. The team is pictured above, and  includes Marissa Clapson, Brian Gilbert, Judy Tran, Shauna Schechtel, and professor Vivian Janet Mozol. Clapson also secured help from The Locked Room, a northeast Calgary company that builds escape rooms and has loaned them its mobile unit, a trailer that demonstrated escape rooms at the Calgary Stampede in 2016 and 2017.

“It’s been crazy fun,” Clapson says. ChemEscape was aimed at making the study of chemistry more accessible to a wider audience, and that made it an obvious fit with Beakerhead — Calgary’s annual festival celebrating innovation through “the collision of art, science and engineering.”

First-year chemistry has tended to be a make-or-break thing, love it or hate it,” Clapson explains. “With ChemEscape, we wanted more people to be able to really engage with the science.” University-level chemistry was clearly a stretch for the general public attending Beakerhead events, so Clapson says the team focused on incorporating everyday chemistry principles to make the Beakerhead version of the game accessible at the Grade 4 level, while still keeping it fun and challenging for all ages.

Grinning, Judy Tran, an undergrad in kinesiology, says her less-than-perfect grasp of chemistry serves as a test to ensure the public will be able to solve the puzzles. Stephen White, a psychology undergrad, says one of his jobs was to design a sealed fluid-density experiment that couldn’t be spilled by younger participants.

ChemEscape was designed to accommodate up to 12 players at a time, with six locked inside the specially modified trailer and six outside to act as “field technicians,” relaying information to those inside by walkie-talkie.

“We do guide the players through it,” Clapson says. Volunteers from the Faculty of Science will be on hand at Beakerhead to provide essential chemistry background, but she says it will be up to the players to solve the puzzles and escape the locked room before time runs out. When all players get together outside the escape room, she promises, “There’s a bit of an explosive ending.”

What the team learned during Beakerhead, they planned to apply in converting ChemEscape into a university-level teaching tool after the festival. It’s intended to make chemistry a more hands-on experience and less a matter of rote learning, she says.

Mozol notes that a big part of the learning experience goes to the students who design ChemEscape, because they have to think about chemistry in novel ways to make it accessible to the target audience. With this in mind, she says, a retooled version of ChemEscape will involve participants in designing their own puzzles and Mozol plans to engage 402 first-year engineering students in puzzle-building this fall.

“When you’re building this thing, you really have to understand what’s going on,” says Brian Gilbert, a science and education undergrad.

“It really makes you think about how people have different ways of learning,” says chemistry undergrad Shauna Schechtel.