Students or Superheros? Unique Escape Room Teaches Teamwork and Critical Thinking

By Office of Communication and Community Relations
November 04, 2021

It was just another ordinary day at Luther Jackson Middle School. A group of students sat around a table tucked in the back of the library, watching a video about their next assignment. Suddenly, the thunder roars and the screen is taken over by a shadowy figure next to the school’s beloved mascot, who’s been kidnapped! Now, Luther Jackson’s mightiest heroes must come together and learn to work as a team if they are going to stop the mischievous Evil Twin from enslaving Jackson the Tiger. 

It may sound like the beginning of an action-packed blockbuster, but it’s actually the mission given to students taking part in Luther Jackson’s brand new escape room. The perimeter of the room is lined with eight large wooden boxes, all different colors and different shapes. These heroic students must move from box to box, solving educational puzzles and collecting ‘curriculum stones’.  With each puzzle solved, the students jump for joy and cheer each other on. It’s no easy task, but together, the students make it to the last challenge, where they must harness the power of an ‘Avengers’-style Gauntlet boot to bring Jackson the Tiger home. 

Students work to solve a puzzle at Luther Jackson Middle School.

The imaginative new escape room is the brainchild of After School Program Specialist Matt Hoffert. He came up with the idea about a year ago, after a computer lab at the back of the school’s library became vacant. As a fan of escape rooms himself, he thought building one would be a fun way to get the students engaged and encourage critical thinking. 

“I don’t necessarily look at it as a curriculum review activity,” Hoffert said. “It definitely ties into that, but the bigger idea is the team building aspect of it. Learning to communicate with each other. Learning to collaborate with other thinkers.”

One of the puzzles at the new escape room.

The puzzles cover topics like history, math, geography, science, and English. Staff representatives from each core subject helped develop the material from the seventh grade curriculum. The escape room is meant to be an activity for eighth graders, so it requires students to think back to lessons from last school year. Hoffert says all the information students need to solve the puzzles is either “on the box or in their brains”. 

“Our team did really well collaborating with each other,” said eighth-grader Darla Ochoa-Orellana. “We needed everyone to think together since some of the things were hard to remember.”

“For different boxes, we chose to listen to the people who had better knowledge in that subject, so we all worked together.” student Mariam Zakir added. 

To bring his idea to life, Hoffert worked with a professional puzzle creator and a prop designer from Fairfax-based company Bond’s Escape Rooms. They were immediately excited about the project, saying this is the first escape room they’ve heard of in a school setting. The Bond's team hopes to bring the unique concept into more schools in the future. 

“It gets kids excited to learn,” said Senior Puzzle Designer Andrew Nicholson. “People do puzzles for fun. And you’re usually incorporating your general knowledge to solve the puzzle. By the end you forget it’s educational.”

“It’s a challenge, but it’s not like a test where you’re really stressed out,” said student Juliana Esen. 

Students work on the last challenge of the escape room.

It usually takes a group of students about 45 minutes to complete the entire escape room. After the mission is complete, Hoffert leads a debrief with the students, asking which puzzle was their favorite and what they learned. The students had some advice for future groups. 

“I think the hardest part was not overthinking it,” Mutazim Elmi said. “We kept overthinking and it took us way too long.”

“If you’re playing this, make sure you listen to others' ideas because sometimes we were doing it on our own.” Micah Mejares added. 

The Luther Jackson escape room was funded through donations from Dewberry, an engineering firm headquartered in Fairfax. Dewberry is an FCPS Ignite Partner.