Students learn skills creating puzzles

Mirror photo by Russ O’Reilly Everett Area Middle-High School students Savanna Nesbitt works to solve the Tomb Raider escape room designed by Bellwood-Antis High School students.

A skeleton of an obviously unsuccessful explorer sat watching as area middle school and high school students placed conopic jars in the right spots inside a weathered wall of an Egyptian pharoah’s tomb. The correct combination unlocked clues leading them to discover a scarab medallion, which they pressed to a corresponding engraving on a wall, unlocking a secret compartment filled with treasure.

The escape room scenario was developed by Bellwood-Antis High School students, who built the cavernous table top puzzle with the help of Bruce Moser, a software developer from Bellwood, who has designed electromechanical devices.

The front of the escape room puzzle looked like a play prop or movie effect with painted foam flooring for walls and a torch illuminating the wall — all held together by a wood frame that was designed for easy set up and tear down.

In the back of the wood frame, Hall Effect sensors, servo motors, RFID sensors, wires and latches control the compartments that spring open when the correct objects, implanted with the corresponding magnetic key, touch it.

The magnetic keys were designed to look like ancient Egyptian conopic jars, and one scarab medallion opened a door to the treasure.

The Bellwood-Antis escape room set was one of several at the Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 office in Altoona last week.

The “Xscape Xstravaganza” was the region’s first escape room competition in which students showcased original tabletop escape games they designed and built.

Groups of competing students played other teams’ games and provided feedback to the designers.

The competition stemmed from the development of a new educational movement that began last summer known as Xscape EDU, which promotes the development of escape room games by students for students.

A total of 14 teams involving about 80 students in grades 3-12 competed in Friday’s event.

School districts involved in pilot program include Bellwood-Antis, Tyrone, Altoona, Hollidaysburg, Everett and Central Cambria.

Dan Shaffer, co-owner of Escape Rooms Altoona, also spoke at the event.

Escape room games included a time-traveling scenario in which players had to unlock clues to return to the present day.

Another puzzle tasked students with following clues to find a kidnapped dog.

The day of escape room activities was the brainchild of Jamie Forshey, director of instructional tech at Bellwood-Antis.

She and her tech club students built an escape room and opened it to the public in Bellwood. Then, Forshey said she thought it would be useful to integrate table top escape room activities into the curriculum.

“It’s exciting to see,” Forshey said. “In the process of developing the games, students use a very important skill set including teamwork, collaboration and problem solving.”