Escaping tradition through ingenuity

In the last year, escape rooms have taken over as a team building activity. From sports squads to academic clubs, everyone in the nation has taken to challenging each other with these rooms, pushing each other to get out under a strenuous time limit. The combination of teamwork, leadership and creativity required provide valuable attributes that West also hopes to instill in its students. While Leadership classes took a trip to an escape room downtown, the Empower program creating their own rooms to allow students to engage with the process from a new perspective. Assistant Principal Ryan Peterson experienced many of the rooms from a first person point of view. Besides attending Escape Oshkosh, Peterson also participated in the Empower program’s reveal night.

“I had the honor of doing both. Myself, Mrs. Kohl, Ms. Montour, and Mr. Jodarski all went through Empower; it was kind of like a pilot test run when they originally created it,” he said. “The teachers had created a room and they asked us to come and, I guess, play their room. It was awesome; they did a really nice job.”

Peterson’s participation within the leadership program’s escape room experience, along with the Empower academy’s, demonstrated the power of such opportunities.

“Mrs. Podvin had asked me and Officer Wissink if we would go with her leadership class down to Escape Oshkosh,” he said. “I had participated in that with about 16 or so kids.”

Peterson’s experiences reflect the ability of such experiences to improve the students’ team building skills.

“They created a project within the Empower Academy for a community night, where small groups of students would create different escape rooms here at school,” he said. “Then, they would open it up to the community. Essentially it was the first project of the year for the Empower Academy students to be able to put on the community event and to have fun in the process.”

Throughout this project, students were able to use their creativity and really invest themselves within each of the rooms, with Peterson and other faculty paying the price.

“Some of the kids created a theme while creating all of the puzzles within the rooms they decorated,” Peterson said. “Not only was the project based on the idea of creating the escape rooms, they also needed to all come together as a unit and organize an entire night’s worth of activities so that way everyone in the Empower program could be involved.”

The night’s activities and outreach to the community stemmed solely from the dedication and organization of students.

“They had subcommittees within their Empower Academy groups where they all had a specific event that they needed to take care of,” Peterson said. “Some of the kids went to the Wildcat Cafe and asked them to participate, some kids planned the waiting lobby, some kids planned out the end of the evening. The kids were really involved in the entire process to build that night for the community and for the Empower community.”

As an outsider, Peterson was able to gain a first hand view of the hard work and commitment of the students to not only go through the escape rooms but also to create them.

“They focus a lot on team work and trying to be leaders amongst their group,” he said. “I think those escape rooms lend themselves very nicely at times to team building in more of a fun and exciting environment.”

Aaron Heller, English teacher and one of the Empower Academy advisors, has been running the program for the last two years and began the escape room project this year as a way to give the program something new to focus on in order to sharpen the mission of the group.

“Our Empower Academy has only been around for two years, so last year we had a pretty successful year,” he said. “This year, we wanted to change things around and do things a little bit different. It’s an alternative program, we kind of take what happens in a traditional classroom and do things different.”

This was a significant and exhaustive project for the students and established a great foundation for the rest of the year through the team building skills this project brought on, according to Heller.

“For our first project, we wanted kids to create their own escape room experience, so they learned quite a bit along the way,” he said. “Through a lot of teamwork and problem solving skills, they were one hundred percent in charge.” Not only was this a great team building experience for the students, but Heller wanted the teens to not be dependent upon anyone except each other for this project. The advisor’s main job was to supervise and allow students to take charge, not fix problems or plan solutions.

“We had student receptionists, student ushers, students working the rooms,” he said. “The teachers were there to supervise. Our Empower students actually ran the whole thing.”

With the students having the ability to pick the themes, they allowed their imaginations to run wild, according to Heller.

“We were able to look up a few things online, and they created their own from scratch,” he said. “They had themes like Alice In Wonderland, SpongeBob, Harry Potter. There were just a lot of different themes and a lot of kids were able to come up with those.”

With each student being integrated into the project, Heller feels the escape rooms brought all of the students together in a meaningful way that involves real world skills and problem solving abilities.

“They were given the task that on a certain day we were going to be opening it [the escape rooms] up to the public,” he said. “So they had to come up with the pieces of the puzzle that went with building that escape room.”

Unfortunately for Heller and the Empower advisers, they were unaware of Escape Oshkosh, which could have served as a template for the student-designed activity.

“We didn’t even realize that, because we would have had our kids go through them first,” he said.

The night proved successful as there was constant participation in the rooms throughout the three hours the event ran.

“We were opened up for three hours, and for the first two hours we were pretty much non stop. Also,  it was free,” Heller said.

When looking back on the project itself, Heller felt that the students gained an education unavailable in a traditional classroom.

“It was a great learning experience for everyone involved,” Heller said.

Not only was the Empower program’s creation of escape rooms a great learning experience, but so was the leadership program’s field trip to Escape Oshkosh.

“We did three different rooms and we had three different teams,” Officer Mike Wissink said. “Peterson was on a team, Mrs. Podvin was on a team, and then I was on a team.”

Wissink, resource officer at West, was a team advisor and knows a thing or two about solving mysteries.

“You get locked in a room and you have an hour to get out, and you have to work through clues to get yourself out,” he said. “It’s clue after clue after clue.”

With his team inside, Wissink and his partners were able to come together and make their way out.

“It took all of us to figure it out. Some people were good at one thing and some people were good at another,” he said. “You had to slow down and work together because you could go in there and everyone could go off in their own direction, but you really had to work together through it all.”

Senior Alexis Pfeilstifter, a member of the Leadership program, felt this was a great learning experience for the students.

“We did it for Leadership to help us be creative and work with each other, so we work as a team and not just as individuals,”

she said. “It was to help us grow,”

These escape rooms require everyone to come  together. For both Empower and the Leadership team,  this experience offered realistic opportunities for collaboration and teamwork.

Beyond skills that reflect in academia, Pfeilstifter believes the experience will strengthen bonds outside of school as well.  

“We gained friendships through it because we figured out each other’s strengths,” she said of the night’s events. “It demanded that we figure out who would work best together.”

by Mikayla Heath


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