Escape the Planet: An Educational Program at the American Museum of Natural History

There is no single place more emblematic of my childhood than the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

It brought my fascination with dinosaurs to life. There are few memories that can compare to the first time I looked up at the towering skeletons of these beasts so alien, yet so real.

When I received an email from American Museum of Natural History asking if I could help them evaluate a children’s escape room educational program, the only answer was “yes.”

A tyrannosaurus rex skeleton standing tall in the American Museum of Natural History.
Rawr!

Escape The Planet

I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I walked into the iconic New York Museum. All I knew was that I was to “evaluate” a children’s STEM program called Escape The Planet and that had something to do with escape rooms.

It was a 20-minute escape room game designed by a group of approximately 2 dozen teens over the course of a week, as part of a STEM program. As an evaluator, I played the game with a handful of other evaluators and provided feedback to the teenage designers.

In the game, we were astronauts who had experienced a system failure on Mars. We had to identify our location and determine a course back to Earth. If we aimed ourselves incorrectly, we would either launch ourselves into the sun or float about the vacuum of space indefinitely. It was a great setup.

The puzzling centered on two interaction types:

  • Searching
  • Augmented reality using a Microsoft HoloLens

The outcome

The teens who designed this room escape had less than a week to conceive of the game and get it ready for us to test it. They had a couple of faculty advisors, one of whom coded like crazy to get the HoloLens applications (there were 2 of them) working.

Given the time constraints and lack of background in escape room design, I was amazed by how cohesive Escape The Planet was. It told a story, taught us science, and integrated technology that most people hadn’t handled. We had fun.

It needed improvement in many of the areas where so many escape room businesses need refinement: extensive written instructions and choppy clue structure. That said, we were literally the first beta testers playing the game.

I was a little nervous providing feedback because I wanted to be encouraging. However, these teenage designers wanted to know the flaws! They asked more questions and sought more pointed feedback than most escape room businesses; they took the feedback like professionals.

I was so damn impressed with both the participants in this program and the advisors.

Learning Programs at the American Museum of Natural History

Through volunteering to evaluate Escape the Planet, I learned that my favorite Museum employs a ton of educators and runs lots of programs for people of all ages.

Check out what they have to offer.

Escape rooms as an education medium

Breakout EDU and all of the educators who have created educational escape games for their students have proven that the escape room medium can be an effective teaching tool.

I love that the folks behind Escape the Planet flipped the model so that the kids learned through designing the game. It was a brilliant twist on the educational escape room concept. I hope that they continue to run programs like this and that others follow suit.

If you’d like to learn more about this particular program, check out this blog post by one of the people who ran it.

Image via The American Museum of Natural History.

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