Escape Classroom: Learning as Fun and Games

April 22, 2024 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

Escape artist Boris Nakashyan creates academic tools that look like escape rooms.

Traditional escape rooms consist of a small group of people “locked” in a room who work as a team to solve a series of puzzles to get out. In Nakashyan’s academic version, students are divided into groups and presented with a scenario. As they complete a series of tests, they get closer to the answer that will solve the scenario. 

Nakashyan, a second-year University of Virginia student, has aspirations to be an entrepreneur and a doctor. An Echols Scholar interdisciplinary major, he is studying statistics, commerce and biology. 

“I’m very passionate about entrepreneurship in medicine, so my combination of biology and entrepreneurship fuses those fields together,” he said. “And statistics is added on for data analysis and making data-driven decisions.”

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But he also has a passion for designing escape rooms – a hobby for which he now gets paid. 

Nakashyan has designed academic escape rooms for several faculty members, including Erin Clabough, an associate professor of psychology and teaching. Clabough had been trying different active learning techniques to engage her students when Nakashyan approached her with the idea for an educational escape room. 

“Though I had done an escape room before, I had never used it for educational purposes,” she said. “Within two weeks, we created and implemented a ‘Sleep Escape Room’ designed to teach circadian rhythm information. 

“Boris infected me with his passion for a new type of active learning: problem-based escape rooms. We agreed that gaining knowledge should involve a sense of wonder, be engaging and allow students to be clever and creative.”

Nakashyan’s creations helped students learn class content and more.

Boris Nakashyan and class instructors stand in front of students with projected presentation
Nakashyan and classroom instructors explain the rules of the academic escape room to about 30 student participants. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“On surveys afterward, students also reported that the team-based, real-world administration format also helped them feel a greater sense of belonging and inclusion in that very large introductory course,” Clabough said. “This is something that cannot be adequately captured on surveys; students were playing while learning, and the energy was infectious in the room.”

With data indicating more student engagement in the course, Nakashyan and Clabough published a pedagogical paper on the educational escape room in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education in 2023, and presented their work at meetings of the International Cognitive Science Society and the Society for Neuroscience. Since then, other professors have contacted Nakashyan about escape rooms for their classes.

Nakashyan tailors his rooms to his clients’ needs.

Nakashyan holds out a puzzle clue close to the camera

Nakashyan displays a puzzle clue during a recent academic escape room session. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I meet with the professors and ask them the purpose of the escape room,” Nakashyan said. “Is it to introduce them to the concepts? To teach them? For them to get more out of the lesson?

“Educational escape rooms are different from recreational escape rooms. In an educational escape room, they have to rely on what they know about the class subject and apply their knowledge to solve the puzzles. In traditional recreational escape rooms, everything you need to know is inside of the room.”

Nakashyan’s escape room work grew out of adolescent shyness and loneliness. He came to the U.S. from Uzbekistan when he was 11. Unsure of his new language, he fell back on other skills.

“I didn’t know English, but I was very good at making puzzles and riddles,” he said. “So, I made math challenges for my friends. That’s how I made my first group of friends. I didn’t have to rely on as much English to give them math riddles. I gave them puzzles and that’s how we bonded.”

Then, his uncle took him to an escape room for his birthday. 

“I realized that you can put puzzles in a room and connect them with a story,” he said. “My puzzles were just kind of separated and there was no substance to them. The puzzles in the escape room have a story, a plot, meaning. There’s a reason why you solve them in the way that you do.”

Recently, Nakashyan designed an educational escape room for Tanya Evan’s neuroscience and education class in Ridley Hall. Students working in groups were presented with the tale of Mathilda, a young girl infected with a virus preventing her from completing mathematics problems. Nakashyan gave each group a packet of mathematical puzzles, the object being to complete the tasks and cure Mathilda.

Nakashyan walks around the tables to see the progress
Nakashyan moves among the tables of student teams, monitoring their progress and seeing if they need help. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

He is also planning a large competition at the McIntire Commerce School next autumn with Eric Martin, assistant professor of commerce, and director of The Galant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. 

“Escape rooms really test your understanding of leadership, collaboration and abstract thinking,” Nakashyan said. “There’s no way to measure that or teach that in the classroom.”

For Nakashyan, escape rooms are about the joy of solving a puzzle – a joy, he said, that makes people feel good about themselves. 

“This brings me joy and happiness,” he said. “It’s one thing to solve an escape room, but it’s another thing to make one. And I love seeing the enthusiasm that students have in solving them.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications