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Chemical escapism: An Aesthetic analysis of a chemical educational escape room

Escape rooms are very popular, non-virtual games in which participants solve puzzles to successfully escape a room within a certain time frame. Tapping on their big popular buzz, a mobile educational escape room based on the Chemistry curriculum was developed at the National Centre for Chemistry Teachers at the Weizmann Institute of Science. In this paper we discuss the design principles of a mobile escape room. We then analyze how these design principles attempt to lead the participant to an aesthetics experience and to desirable learning outcomes. 

Imagine being locked in a room and having to use your brain, intuitions and a pinch of luck to escape within an hour, else … This is the concept behind "escape rooms" which are extremely popular in recent years and are popping up around the world. In Israel alone over 300 rooms have popped up in the last two year. In a project by the National Center for Chemistry Teachers at the Weizmann Institute of Science, a mobile escape room was designed and built to suit secondary schools. The motivation was to bring the buzz and fun of the escape room experience to chemistry students to further engagement and enthusiasm towards chemistry. 

The mobile educational escape room
Our motivation to design and build the educational escape room was to harness the magic, power and popularity of the escape rooms to raise the motivation of students to study chemistry. Regular escape rooms are not readily suitable for educational purposes since they are fixed, allow limited number of participants at a time and are fairly expensive to construct. Hence, we decided on the following design constraints for the mobile room:

(1) Mobile – The escape room must be mobile in order to reach a maximum number of people. A fixed room would place a financial burden due to student transportation costs. 
(2) Big groups – a normal chemistry lab class in Israel consists of 20 students. The room should fit an entire class simultaneously. To overcome this restriction we divide the participating class into groups of 4-5 students who work alongside each other. 
(3) Costs - Materials must be inexpensive to allow for considerable wear and tear. Working on a low budget meant finding materials that would fit the budget yet sufficiently support the aesthetic experience.
(4) Adherence to the curriculum - Working with 11th and 12th grade students preparing for the national high-stakes examinations, the room must tightly link to the curriculum.
(5) Aesthetic experience – The room must lead to an aesthetic experience. The purpose of building the room was to raise motivation towards learning chemistry and show chemistry in another, distinct light.
The resulting 'escape room' is a kit which teachers can borrow. Non-perishables are provided and schools provide perishables (chemicals) from their labs. The room consists of nine puzzles, the solution of each leads to the next puzzle. In addition to solving puzzles there is also an element of luck in that students must find pieces of information hidden in the room in order to proceed, i.e. a combination of luck and brain.

Aesthetics in the design of the chemical escape room 
There are several definitions for "aesthetic" in the science education literature: something being beautiful, something associated with art, something associated with sensing or something associated with understanding of aesthetics. Another view of aesthetics relates to the subjective interactive experience of the viewer with an object (Dewey, 1934/2005). While we constantly have experiences, an aesthetic experience according to Dewey is an occurrence that reached completeness and is demarked from other experiences (Dewey, 1934/2005; Pugh and Girod, 2007). Such an experience is differentiated because it brings about a transformation of how we see the world. We will analyze how the escape room was designed to provide an aesthetic experience.

Chemistry and aesthetics meet to form a puzzle
The puzzles can be divided into two categories: (1) 'Wet' puzzles that require doing a short experiment or practical work. For example identifying acids and bases in unlabeled test-tubes, injecting acid to reveal a code, or making a conductive dough that closes and electric circuit; (2) 'Dry' puzzles that do not require doing an experiment, but rather require the application of chemistry knowledge. For example, sorting a number of cards containing data of solutions according to their pH, identifying atomic numbers from the periodic table or balancing chemical equations.

The narrative
The escape room experience takes place in a fictitious narrative. Participants are shown a short introductory video presenting a narrative in which four bombs are hidden in the chemistry lab. Participants must dissipate the bombs within an hour. The narrative serves as an entry point and provides legitimization for playing. 
When encountering a new narrative the brain partly believes and partly skeptically disbelieve the narrative and it is the goal of the aesthetic experience to lead the subject to a 'willing suspension of disbelief' (Holland, 2008) as happens when we enter the theatre or observe a work of art. It is the job of the escape room to transport the participants into a space where they are engulfed in the story and the activities. A successful aesthetic experience will thus occur when participants have suspended their disbelief for major part of the activity. In commercial escape rooms elaborate scenery aids this suspension. Having a mobile escape room, the ability to set the room up is necessarily limited. If the story was too detached from the physical setting it might jeopardize the suspension of disbelief. Hence the story was aimed at taking place in the physical space of the lab. This aspect can be researched by investigating participant's transportation into the narrative and attitudes towards the narrative, settings and the props.

Aesthetic doubling 
Learning that occurs in fictitious environments can be characterized by aesthetic doubling - the ability of the participant to take on a character yet remain herself throughout the activity, thus seeing the activity with two lenses (Iser, 1978). This enhances the aesthetic experience by allowing the learner to bring with her real-life chemistry knowledge and take the experience with her to the real-world post-activity. Research into this should look at how participants used real-world chemistry knowledge to the activity and what knowledge they take from the activity to the real-world.

The aesthetics of the puzzles 
The puzzle design drew on several design principles: (1) Beautiful, surprising or mysterious phenomena (TEMI project, 2015)(e.g. ink that magically disappears upon heating); (2) Presentation in a way that is appealing or surprising (e.g. the jar in figure 2a which reveals a code upon becoming clear); (3) Level of difficulty should not be too easy as not to bore or too hard as not to frustrate. This can be controlled by the amount of information provided to solve a puzzle; (4) Only one possible solution. In pilot runs we discovered that participants sometimes had alternative ways of solving a puzzle, such opening a jar when it was not meant to. Such shortcuts, deter from the aesthetic experience, since a challenge was removed; (5) 'Spacing' the puzzles so that every few minutes a "ah-ah" effect takes place keeping participants engaged; and (6) An aesthetic experience must be a complete experience. In the case of our escape room, this meant dissipating a 'bomb' thus solving and completing the fictitious narrative.

In this paper we analyzed the design principles that led to the creation of a mobile educational escape room from an aesthetic experience point of view. This is the first stage in investigating the educational benefits and learning outcomes of an educational escape room activity.

Ran Peleg*, Malka Yayon and Dvora Katchevich
Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel