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How I use an "Escape Room" to get my students learning about the elements in the Periodic Table

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

What is more interesting than students going on a top-secret mission for the Bureau of Rogue elements to identify a mystery element wanted for unsanctioned reactions?

Read on to learn how I used this escape room to get my students excited about learning the different elements and their properties.

Introducing the Periodic Table

The introduction to the periodic table and trends in the periodic table are (according to my students) those boring chemistry topics that they merely have to endure until more interesting topics come around.

In the past, I found myself monotonously running through the different trends in each group interjected by some practical activity that students fail to relate to the content.

This year, instead of simply getting through the boring bits, I decided to use an escape room type of activity with my high school chemistry students and it was a success!

Creating A Story relevant to the elements

Every good escape room starts off with a good story.

An engaging narrative gets students engrossed in the activity as it leads them from puzzle to puzzle.

In this activity, students are on a top-secret mission to identify a mystery element. Students will gather evidence on the different physical properties of our mystery element through a series of puzzles and riddles.

To keep to the theme of the escape room, students are given the instructions in a series of letters and/or email messages from special investigating officer Majorie Walker.

There are three missions/ activities that students must complete in order to uncover the identity of the element. Although all activities are related, students must solve these separately.

Students are placed in teams and are asked to select a team leader or lead agent who will be responsible for reading Agent Walker's instructions, collecting the mission folders and ensuring students remain on task and complete their evidence report forms for submission at the end of each activity.

To make the experience more immersive I use manila envelopes or file folders to organize the evidence/ puzzles, report forms and instructions for each mission.

I would sometimes print Top Secret or Confidential and stick this on the cover of each mission folder if I'm feeling extra.

Solving the Puzzles

Every activity in this escape room is aligned with the lesson objectives. After completing each mission, students will acquire some knowledge that will lead them closer to uncovering the identity of the mystery element.

When implementing escape rooms in the classroom, not only should the puzzles challenge students and test their problem-solving capabilities, but, more importantly, they should ALWAYS relate to the learning content in some way.

One of the puzzles included in this escape room involves an interview transcript where the asset; Ms Gallium, is asked a series of questions related to the properties of the mystery element.

Ms Gallium's answers are encrypted and students will first need to decipher the code, using the provided cipher. Then, using the answers, students will select all the elements that match the physical properties garnered from the transcript and eliminate those that do not bringing them one step closer to solving the mystery.

Learning Goals of Each Mission

Each mission in the Find the Element Escape room is aligned with specific learning objectives.

Mission 1: Identifying the Elements from the Periodic table

In the first mission, students are given a list of elements (the suspects). No chemical names are given. However, the suspect profile document sent from the Bureau will have a few clues.

First students will have to determine the relevance of each clue, and then determine how it will help them identify the elements on the list.

The Intended Learning Goals of this Activity

  • Students should become familiar with the layout of the periodic table and the first 20 elements of the periodic table.

  • Students should recognize that the nuclear notation of the elements gives information on the number of subatomic particles in the atoms of each element.

  • Students should recognize that A represents the mass number of the atom and Z represents the atomic number in the nuclear/chemical notation of the element.

Mission 2: The physical Properties of Elements

In this activity, students are given an encrypted conversation transcript (described in the previous section) which contains information on the physical properties of the unknown element. Using these physical properties students can narrow down the "suspect list".

Intended Learning Goal of this activity

  • Categorize elements based on differences in physical properties such as melting point, boiling point, and electrical conductivity.

Mission 3: (More) Physical Properties of the elements

Students are given a letter, a maze, and a driver's license collected during a failed raid on the Mendeleev Society's hideout. Each of these contains more clues on the physical properties and atomic structure of the mystery element.

Intended Learning Goals of this activity

  • Understand the relationship among elements in a group of the periodic table

  • Categorize elements based on differences in physical properties.

There are also easter eggs within some of the activities that are not relevant to the mission but it would be interesting to see if students can pick up on them.

Keeping Students Accountable

Instead of collecting lock codes as some escape rooms do, students will be required to submit an Evidence form to the assigned lead agent before receiving the next mission folder.

These forms serve to keep students organized and will also help them summarize their ideas and all the clues they have gathered from the activity.

They also serve as a worksheet of sorts, to ensure that students are performing the tasks correctly and that they have understood the preceding activity before moving on to the next.

Creating opportunities for student-lead discussion

Engaging students throughout the activity by asking questions that lead to interesting discussions and more opportunities for learning is also an essential aspect of this activity.

After each mission, I have a little discussion with students without giving anything away. Some general questions to address any difficulty and misconceptions are:

  • Did you learn anything new about the elements?

  • Was there anything that stood out to you that challenged some of your ideas?

I am careful to listen to students' ideas without giving away too much information that can spoil the other missions. The whole point of the activity is for them to learn some of the facts about the elements themselves.

For example, by the end of mission two, students would have narrowed down the elements to two distinct groups of the periodic table and some of them may not even notice this. Some useful questions to get them thinking would be:

  • What are some similarities and some differences among the elements?

  • Can you form any groups with them?

  • Why did you place them in these groups?

Once during one of these discussions, a student brought up the fact that carbon is a non-metal but conducts electricity like metals. This provided an excellent opportunity to initiate discussions about structure and bonding and the role of electrons in conducting electricity.

Follow up with an Inductive approach to teach trends in the Periodic Table

A great way to follow up the escape room is to start discussing structure and bonding and the bulk properties of solids, however, I usually follow up with a more in-depth lesson on the trends in the periodic table.

In keeping with the student-led approach, I usually go about this by implementing the Jigsaw Strategy.

With this learning strategy, students become experts on a given group in the periodic table, then they teach their jigsaw team what they have learned based on their research. I explain how to use the Jigsaw strategy to teach trends in the periodic table here.

By implementing these activities in your chemistry classroom, you can step back and allow students to become active participants in their own learning. You can then act as a facilitator, answering questions and providing hints, guiding students through the learning process.

Check out the Chemistry in Color Series

These colour-by-number worksheets are easy to implement and are a quick and fun revision exercise for chemistry students of all ages. Students answer the questions as they would with any normal worksheet and then colour in the images based on the codes assigned to that answer.

Check out the Chemistry In Color collection HERE.

Clicking on the Images will take you to my Teacher's Pay Teachers Store where you can learn more about each individual resource.

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