Escape rooms at MCC? No, just a student training exercise

There’s no escaping math! One group of supplemental instruction leaders works together to solve a riddle involving five identical houses and a missing fish.

When it comes to escape rooms, a little stress is part of the deal. The idea is that several people are trapped in a room until they deduce their way out, using smarts and teamwork.

But when Metropolitan Community College’s FOCUS program designed escape rooms for students serving as supplemental instruction leaders, claustrophobia wasn’t in the plan — no locked doors. “The problem-solving kind of anxiety,” however, was fine, said Melissa Renfrow, MCC’s institutional FOCUS grant manager.

Supplemental instruction leaders are one component of the FOCUS program, which broadly aims to better serve first-year students, including those taking developmental education classes to prepare for college-level coursework. FOCUS is funded by three five-year grants from the U.S. Department of Education; this school year is the final year of the grants.

MCC’s supplemental instruction leaders are successful students who are paid to take a class they’ve taken before. The second time around, they’re on hand to help fellow students by scheduling study sessions outside of class — at least two per week, more when a test or deadline for a major paper approaches.

Typically, it’s up to students whether they attend SI study sessions, although some dev-ed classes require it.

An activity in the humanities escape room was matching paper flags with a series of books. institutional FOCUS grant manager Melissa Renfrow (far left) offers a hint.

As for why the leaders of these study groups found themselves in escape rooms recently at MCC’s Business & Technology campus, that was one 90-minute segment of two days of training, with more to come throughout the year. Of this group of 12 supplemental instruction leaders from three campuses, just two are SI veterans from last year.

The escape rooms themselves were, as you might expect, classrooms — less ornate than those commercial escape rooms, but still containing mysteries that had to be solved. Three groups of SI leaders rotated among three themed rooms (science, math/logic and humanities), each for about a half hour.

The science room, for instance, had objects laid out on tables, such as books, a photo of guys on horseback, a “Best Mom” statuette, a hand mirror. And a box of tiny toy animals. One group immediately set to work sorting the animals, although there was disagreement about the best way to proceed: Land vs. sea? Color? Mammals vs. reptiles?

Students in the science room try to figure out how they should sort a bunch of toy animals.

In the humanities room, students had to put together paper flags of states or countries that corresponded with a stack of books. (“I know the authors — I don’t know the flags,” one student remarked.)  A punctuation activity had to be completed successfully to open a nearby toy safe. A one-minute writing activity called for creation of a six-word story.

Meanwhile, in the math room, a video introduced the mystery of a missing fish and a robber. The two could be found in one of five identical-looking houses. But which one? Clues provided scant information but apparently enough to solve the riddle.

“Oh, it’s one of those deductive reasoning ones. Love it!” declared Kevin Johnson, an SI leader at MCC-Blue River.

But as the students’ efforts to find the fish fizzled — they’d been trying to work out the problem on a white board — some help arrived. Kim Sides-Steiger, coordinator of the SI program, suggested they use a matrix.

But that, too, seemed to go nowhere.

“Why’d you abandon it? Was it a bad strategy?” Sides-Steiger asked them. She then gave more advice: Read through the clues again. Some of them are spatial — one fellow’s house is next to a certain other house, etc.

The escape rooms were intended to spark collaboration, active learning and self-discovery, Sides-Steiger said. Another benefit: Some of the activities can be used by the SI leaders in their study sessions.

Beyond that, the puzzles of an escape room somewhat suggest the confusion felt by a student taking, say, biology for the first time. “We want them to feel that — that same level of disorientation — a little bit,” Renfrow said.

“The real key to SI is, it’s collaborative and social,” she added, referring to the after-class study sessions. When presented with something difficult, is it better to be alone or together when trying to make sense of it?

For that question, anyway, there’s an easy answer.

“They can figure it out faster with others,” Renfrow said.

Jason Pallett (left), institutional FOCUS grant activities director, keeps an eye on progress in the math escape room.