Creating Instructional Escape Room Activities For Traditional And Online Learning

Concurrent Session 1 & 2 (combined)
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Brief Abstract

In this session, we will conduct a short exercise to explore several types of escape room activities for active learning, use a development framework to design a short instructional escape room, and discuss ways to incorporate them into an Learning Management System to supplement instruction and assess learning.


Dr. Valerie Nelson is an Applied Research Mathematician at the National Security Agency with 19 years of experience in the intelligence field, over 15 years of college level teaching experience, and over 20 years of nontraditional teaching on a range of topics. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Mathematics at Morgan State University and her Ph.D. in Mathematics from Howard University as an Alliance for Graduate Education in the Professoriate (AGEP) fellow and participate of the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) Program. She also possesses a Professional Certificate in Data Science from the University of Maryland College Park. Her current focus is on data science applications to education. In 2000, Dr. Nelson was hired into NSA's Applied Mathematics Program (AMP) which she completed in 2004. She recently served as Department Head for the Mathematics, Cryptanalysis and Data Science curricula at the National Cryptologic School (NCS) and a lead for NSA's Data Science Literacy Initiative. In 2018, her department won the 2018 NCS Learning Enabler of the Year Award, and she was personally honored by the President of Morgan State University as a distinguished alum. She was selected as one of eight to participate in the Department of Defense's Senior Technical Development Program's Class of 2020 and was a visiting faculty member on the Instructional Technology Team at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Dr. Nelson has served as an adjunct faculty member at NCS, George Washington University, Howard University, Morgan State University, and Prince George's Community College. She also serves as the Chief Instructor and Curriculum Coordinator for Prince George's County MD's Meeting of the Minds component under the Community Public Awareness Council (CPAC) where she teaches youth and their parents, and teaches academic, professional development, and wellness workshops to the public. She is a member of the National Security Executive Professional Association (NSEPA) and Tri-City Chapter of Blacks In Government (BIG). Some of her other recent formal recognition includes receipt of the NCS Commandant Award, NSA Director's Excellence in Leadership Award, NSEPA Shining Star Award, MSU Mathematics Department Shirley K. Russell Service Award, MSU Mathematics Alumnus of the Year Award, and the Director's Coin from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

Extended Abstract

Escape rooms have become a popular choice for group socials and team-building activities.  They can be implemented in a variety of ways, providing mental and sometimes physical challenges presented to participants which must be overcome in order to meet a particular goal in a prescribed amount of time.  They are traditionally thought of as a game where a small group is locked in a room and must use resources in the environment to determine how to get out.  However, escape rooms can come in many forms with many challenges, including those involving scavenger hunts requiring teams to find or unlock certain items, or challenges where the team is somehow physically linked (such as in a human chain) and must determine how to individually release the members given certain constraints.  In general, escape rooms are timed, and not all teams overcome the challenges before their time is up.

Instructors are now adapting escape room frameworks as an active learning strategy to engage students.  Although the hands-on and team-based characteristics of such activities are clearly evident, it is less evident how a well-planned escape room experience can provide opportunities for learners to reinforce knowledge concepts, practice using tools and techniques, and exercise sound decision-making given a scenario.  Further, the activities can help learners make connections across content areas while generally improving their critical thinking and analytic skills through the problem-solving requirements.  Given a variety of tools and techniques that can be used for different types of content, followed by a framework to plan a well-organized and intentional escape room, instructors can also take advantage of these activities to assess student competencies, especially when implemented online. 


In this session, we will:

  1. Participate in a short instructional escape room activity in small groups.
  2. Identify several types of escape room activities that can be used as an active learning strategy to reinforce course content mastery.
  3. Review a framework that can be used when designing an instructional escape room.
  4. Work in small groups to create a short instructional escape room.
  5. Discuss ways to incorporate escape room activities into a Learning Management System to supplement instruction and serve as online assessment tools.



  • (5 min)  Welcome/Agenda
  • (20 min) Introductory Instructional Escape Room Exercise
  • (5 min) Group Discussion on Techniques
  • (10 min) Overview of Techniques and Use as Assessment Tools
  • (40 min) Design Challenge Activity
  • (10 min) Wrap-Up Discussion/Q&A