November 28, 2023
Image Stem club students
STEM Club students, Sarah Girard, Silvio Roussos, and Carolyn Marble, work on soldering circuit boards puzzles used in the Escape Room project.

Students from the STEM Club at Great Bay Community College had so much fun attending group outings at a Portsmouth escape room, they decided to create their own. In designing and building a series of progressive “smart” puzzles for a Great Bay escape room, the students are learning skills related to electronics, engineering, and automation – and having fun at the same time.

“The escape room, in my mind, is a fun way to learn new subjects while creating something,” said Great Bay student and STEM Club member Sarah Girard. “I’ve learned a lot about coding and building electronics, and we are only on the first few puzzles. It opens the gateway to finding interest in something I may never have thought of otherwise.”

Mike Gordon, chemistry professor and faculty adviser for the STEM Club, said the idea of students creating their own escape room stemmed from the fun they had attending a commercial escape room in Portsmouth. “As part of our club activities, we just decided to make one on campus,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun, and the students deserve all the credit. They had the fire under them to make this happen.”

Escape rooms are interactive adventure games, where players are metaphorically locked in a room until they escape by finding hidden clues and solving puzzles to complete a mission within a specific time, usually an hour. With each puzzle solved, players get more clues to progress to the next puzzle until all secrets are unlocked – or until time runs out.

The STEM Club students are still working on their puzzles and games related to Great Bay and academic themes associated with the college. The students won’t have a dedicated space where they can host their escape room, so they are creating a series of portable puzzles they will be able to move around to different locations on campus. “I hope for ours to function as a ‘traveling escape room’ so it will be able to be picked up and moved to a new location out of necessity,” Girard said. “But I also hope the students to be able to get the genuine feel of escaping the room, not just solving puzzles.”

The escape room has been in development since at least the spring semester of 2023, said STEM Club member and student Carolyn Marble. “The puzzles range from computer science, to chemistry, to physics topics—a range of STEM topics. A date to release the escape room has not been announced,” she said.

Girard hopes the escape room is finished by the end of the academic year and that enthusiasm carries it forward.

The students’ theme for the room is “Escaping Great Bay,” which incorporate classroom settings, multiple subject areas, and either a key to leave school or a diploma to prove students “passed the test” and graduated. “We are trying to have puzzles that touch on each area of STEM,” Girard said. “The puzzle we are working on currently is going to be a Russian nesting doll-influenced puzzle, where you solve one puzzle that opens the box to another puzzle, which will open the box to a helping hand to another puzzle. We also have chemistry, biology, and astronomy puzzles.”

The STEM Club at Great Bay is open to all students, regardless of their field of study. “People who are not in STEM majors are in the STEM Club, and everyone brings their own perspective,” Gordon said. “Making an escape room may not sound ‘STEMMY,’ if you will, but none of the students in our club have backgrounds in networking, electronics, or engineering. All are learning new fields and new skills to execute this project. So they are all stepping out of their comfort zone to learn these new skills.”

While some puzzles require academic knowledge or “good-old fashioned sleuthing” to solve, Gordon said, many are “smart” puzzles with embedded electronic systems. Designing and building them requires skills and knowledge related to graphical programming, circuitry, wiring, and automation.

Earlier this semester, the students held a “soldering party” with assistance from Michael Harrison, program coordinator and associate professor of Information Systems Technology at Great Bay, where they melded components and began turning their ideas into reality.

Harrison credited the students for embracing the technology and “designing on the fly. … It’s kind of fun to see the engineering part of it creep into what might have been simply puzzles.” They are building electronically intelligent games that will be easily passed to and maintained by future students, he said, noting that many of these students will benefit from having a practical handle on these skills no matter their field of study or profession.

The escape room project has helped revive the STEM Club. Before the pandemic, it had as many as 20 members. It has less than half that number now. “But they’re rebounding,” Gordon said. “The club is very proactive. In the past couple of months, they have made as much as progress as they did in all of last year. After a lot of thinking and brainstorming last year, there is a lot of doing this year. I am really proud of this group.”

Girard has enjoyed her time with the club, and she encouraged more students to consider getting involved. “I’ve always been interested in science and engineering–math not so much. But I thought it would be fun to join a club that allows you to learn new information in a hands-on manner without the pressure of grades or tests,” she said. “You can focus on certain subjects, learning with your peers or a professional in a fun and relaxed manner.”