Insights from the Field

Jan/Feb 2019 Guest Blogger: Brian Johnson

Break out of the Library!

by Brian Johnson, Linn-Mar High School

Brian is a Media Specialist at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa – Go Lions! Brian enjoys makerspaces, 3d printing and helping everyone (teachers, staff and students) explore their interests through the library’s services.

One of my favorite ways to collaborate with the teachers in my building is through our set of BreakoutEDU boxes. I am currently a high school librarian, but the BreakoutEDU Boxes can be used for any grade level. For those of you who haven’t heard of BreakoutEDU, it is similar to an escape room. In an escape room there is a storyline and participants are using clues and solving puzzles to escape from the room in a limited period of time. With a BreakoutEDU you still have the storyline, the puzzles and clues, but these are all related to a specific content area. Your students are working collaboratively in small groups trying to break into their box within 45 minutes. If they get in, they completed the breakout and there is celebration! If they don’t get in, they learn that you don’t always win and they can reflect on what they could do differently next time.

Getting Started

There is a huge selection of free user created games on every discipline thinkable so the only cost for you is the cost to acquire the box and the locks. Here you have the following three options: you can purchase a set from BreakoutEDU (priced $125 at the time of this writing), you can build your own or you can have students play digital breakouts. I went with building my own and got it for significantly less than the one from BreakoutEDU. To build the basic kit you will need the following:

  • 1x primary box / large toolbox that a hasp can be used on

  • 1x small 3 digit lock box

  • 1x hasp

  • 1x speed dial lock (usually referred to as a directional lock)

  • 1x 4 digit number lock

  • 1x 5 character word lock

  • 1x key padlock

  • 1x black light

  • 1x usb drive

  • 2x hint cards

  • 1x black light pen (or more)

  • Optional (but that I have found useful):

  • 1x 4 letter word lock

  • 1x 3 digit number lock

BreakoutEDU has also added a red filter to their kit but I haven’t had any games that required it yet.

Almost everything you see on this list can be purchased at your local hardware store, Walmart, or at a dollar store (which is nice in case a lock jams the day before you need it). I purchased my black lights and UV pens on Amazon. Watch for specials! If you are near a Menards, stock up when they have their 15% off bag sales. If you aren’t sure if the price for something is a good deal or not, use the website to check the price history for an item on Amazon. Once you have assembled your kits I have found it useful to color coordinate things. I have colored duct tape in my makerspace so I put red, blue, yellow and green tape on my locks, boxes and parts to make it easier to assemble my games.

It is important that once you get your locks you set all the same type of locks to a default code. It makes it so much easier to remember if all your number locks are set to 0001 or your word lock is set to SPELL.

Finding Breakout Games

As I previously mentioned there are tons of games available for free online. If you go to the BreakoutEDU website, login and and go to the games/platform area you will look for the User Generated category. All of the user generated games are free.

You can also browse the shared Google Drive sandbox, filled with games. Many of these games are a work in progress or may require additional materials so read through them to determine if you have the right locks.

Another great location to find games or to ask if anyone has created a game on a specific topic you are looking for is the BreakoutEDU Facebook page:

BreakoutEDU also has discipline specific facebook groups as well. Here is their breakout group for librarians:

The Pregame

You have your box(es) and have chosen a game that you have all the required parts to. Now you just need to set up the game. I find that even before I print out the clues and start putting the game together it is useful to test out all the URLs and QR codes that are found in the game. Sometimes you will find a URL or QR Code that is down (or blocked by your school’s filter) and you have to 1) recreate the URL/QR code or 2) pick a different game. It isn’t much fun to have your students going through the game and halfway through you find that the QR codes are blocked - trust me on this one.

Ok, so URL/QR codes work, you have everything for locks, now the game clues just need to be printed. If you decide to laminate, make sure you apply the UV pen before you laminate. You can still see the glowing area through the laminate. Once you have printed the clues you can start putting the locks on your box. When I assemble the games, I do all the word locks together, then do all the 4 digit number locks and so on. Test the locks BEFORE you put them on the box and make sure the codes line up. Having the lock code slightly off might mean that 2020 is actually a 2021 or a 2029 which dampers the fun of the game when students know they have the right code but can’t get the lock to open. Make sure to put your Success! and WIN! posters inside the box so the students get them when/if they succeed in breaking in.

When you get all the locks on the box and codes set, walk through the game and understand how all the clues are solved. Go through the game a few times by yourself and take off the locks. During the game the students will get 2 hint cards. If are familiar with the game and how the clues are solved you can give better hints without looking at a cheat sheet. I find it is useful to have the clues that you have printed out, that students are going to start with in a mailing envelope so that they can’t just look at them as you pass them out. When I work with a teacher I have the teacher create the student groups.

The Game

Everything is set and you are going to run the game! I usually have them stacked in front of the classroom when students come in with the envelope with clues on each box. On a computer bring up a 45 minute timer on Youtube before the students show up. If there is a video for the story line have that ready to go as well.

My introduction usually follows this script:

  1. Explain what the breakout box is - similar to an escape room. Students will have 45 minutes to remove all the locks and break into the box. Collaboration and communication is important! Talk with your teammates and let them know what has worked and hasn’t worked. You succeed or fail as a team.

  2. Not everyone will solve the game. But don’t give up! I have had groups solve the final lock and open the box with seconds left. 7 seconds to be precise - there was quite a bit of cheering for that game.

  3. Show the box and the locks. I explain how each lock is opened and is reset in the case of the speed/directional lock. Be sure to specify which direction to slide the 3 digit number lock box since moving it the wrong way, when it is in the correct combination, allows you to change the lock.

  4. All the boxes have the same clues and answers. If you figure something out keep quiet about it as other groups might pick up on it.

  5. If clues/puzzles are hidden, I tell them that there may be things around the room that can help them solve the puzzles. I also make sure to let them know what areas are off-limits.

  6. No cheating or guessing. It defeats the purpose of the game to try and guess what the locks are or to get the answers from a previous class. Your time is better used trying to figure out clues rather than guessing combinations.

    • I usually give groups one or two warnings about trying to guess the lock. If they continue I usually move the box away and tell them they can try if they have an answer they have figured out.

  7. Every group is given 2 hint cards. Your group only gets 2 hints for the entire game! You have to decide as a group when you want to use the hint cards and everyone must agree to use the hint card.

  8. Any questions on the mechanics? This is the last time you will get to ask without using a hint card

From here I read the introduction or we watch the video that explains the story line. I pass out the boxes, which the groups are not allowed to touch until the timer starts. Then we count down, the timer starts and they go.

Take a step back and watch. If there are any questions, the usual answer is “Would your group like to use a hint card to have me answer that?” which is usually answered with a “No”. The first few times you run the game it is hard to watch the students struggle and not try and help them out, but resist!

I will help out if the students are having trouble with a lock. If they say we are trying 123 or whatever and it IS 123 I will usually let them put the code in and show them how the lock opens. They get to take the lock off or open the box. If they say we are trying 456 and the combination is 123 then I tell them the locks won’t open if you don't have the right combination.

As the students figure out the locks, I usually announce to the class when each group has gotten their first and second lock off such as “The blue group has removed their word lock!”

I collect the locks as students take them off. This helps prevent the locks from accidentally being reset and allows me to keep track of the locks. If I have to reset the game between classes, collecting the locks and making sure they are on the right combination to just close them makes the prep so much easier.

I announce when the clock is at 30, 20, 15, 10, 5, 1 minute and then count down the last 10 seconds. It helps the students keep track of how much time is left. I also remind the students that they have the hint cards to use and they don’t get anything extra for not using them.

After the time has run out, I congratulate the teams who got in, let everyone know their time, and do a quick rundown of how many locks each group removed. We have a debriefing where we talk about what went well, what they could have done better, and how they will do things differently in the future.

The Results

So far, most of the students who have played the breakout game have enjoyed it. It provides them with a fun activity that relates to the content they are studying. They problem solve, collaborate, communicate and learn. If you get a chance to try out a Breakout Game I strongly encourage you to try it out. You will not be disappointed!

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