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Math Challenge 2016 – “Omega Challenge”

By Dr Ricky Chua, School of Interdisciplinay Studies 

Note: The idea for the “escape room” was first seeded when Ricky participated in a Learning Journey (LJ) designed and facilitated by TLC – “Unlock the Mystery: A Learning Journey in Designing Learning through Puzzles”. 

The Omega Challenge

Over 570 students from various secondary schools participated in Math Challenge 2016 organised by School of Interdisciplinary Study (IS) –Mathematics Section at NP.  The event was divided into two sections: (1) a quiz segment where students compete to answer questions as quickly as possible, and (2) a games segment where students need to complete mathematical-related questions at 4 different game stations.   

Omega Challenge (OE) was one of the game stations that was designed according to the “escape room” concept where students were required to solve the puzzle within a given time frame before they can move on to the next station.

Participants were grouped into teams of 8 and ushered into a briefing room, where they were shown a one-minute video on what is expected of them. After this brief introduction, the students were lead into the “escape room” blind-folded, bringing with them only writing materials as resources. Once they were in the room, a game master will announce the beginning of the countdown which give the participants ten minutes to solve the mathematics puzzle and “escape”. The session officially begins when the participants hears the dramatic music being played in the background, and they remove the blind-fold to work on the challenge.

Once the session starts, participants need to look for the six math puzzles scattered around and solve each puzzle to find the three-digit number which would unlock six boxes that are scattered about the room. Participants need to match the three-digit numbers to the correct boxes to open and find the content inside.

Within each box is a piece of  jigsaw-like puzzle and participants need to collect all six pieces of puzzle put the pieces together to find the final math puzzle to solve. This puzzle is more difficult than the previous six and the final answer is a four-digit number which is the solution they need to successfully escape from the OE challenge.

Designing the OE Experience: Some considerations

In order for the activities to be successful, the OE team had to pay attention to 3 key areas:  Physical environment of the “escape room”, the difficulty level of the mathematic problems that had to be solved, and logistics of the activities to allow for a successful implementation of the Omega Challenge. 

The deco was a critical component for setting the mood & the puzzles were deliberately made difficult to increase engagement.

Creating the right environment

Creating the right environment for OE was important as one of the objectives was for the game to be memorable, exciting and fun. To do so requires a high level of detail to produce the right atmosphere for the experience which included creating a dark room illuminated only by blinking lights and blindfolding the participants before they enter their game stations to create a sense of anticipation and curiosity.  Dramatic background music was also played in the room during the session to create a sense of tension and excitement among the participants.  Coupled with the deliberate use of a countdown timer in the “escape room” the OE team manage to create an intense and exciting atmosphere for the participants to solve the math puzzles.

Creating the right level of “challenge”  

 The other three game stations that form the games segment of the Math Challenge were relatively easy with approximately 90% of participants completing those other successfully. Therefore, the OE team decided to increase the difficulty level of OE to create that sense of “difficulty” and to create a “challenge” for the participants by designing more difficult questions for the participants with the aim to only have a 50% success rate for this station.

Creating an efficient implementation process and turn-around time.

The games segment requires participants to move from station to station in a round-robin fashion. This meant that any delays in a particular station will snowball and cause a slowdown for the entire event. It is for this reason that the team was very systematic in creating a protocol for our student helpers, drilling them to be able to reset all the puzzles within a five-minute window.

Outcomes of Omega Challenge

Feedback from the participants has been very positive about OE, with many of them saying it was the most memorable part of the Math Challenge. These were evident from the response from the participants as they scrambled to solve the final puzzle in the final moments of the countdown, sometimes screaming in excitements. Other participants were so focused on solving the mathematics problems that they insisted on taking a photo of the final jigsaw which they could not complete in time, so that they could solve it in their own time. 

Although the design of the OE activities were made difficult so that the participants would feel the “challenge”, participants were not discouraged by the difficult as they were deeply engaged in solving the puzzles and there was no feedback about OE challenge being too difficult.  In fact, having a low success rate had the unintended effect of leaving a very deep positive impression on participants, leaving them talking about the station even after they have moved to other stations.

The relative success of OE has confirmed that the Math Challenge outcomes can be improved by an “escape room” type of activity. From the OE team’s perspective, the game had achieved the outcome of creating a fun and memorable learning experience for the participants.