North Adams-themed escape room piloted at Greylock Elementary

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NORTH ADAMS — Not too long ago, in an elementary school a few miles west of them, a team of high school students enlisted a class of fourth-graders to help them learn about and preserve the history and future of their shared city.

Fourth-graders from Greylock Elementary School walked into their gymnasium to find a mysterious white tent set up in the middle of it, and a dozen teenagers from E3 Academy ready to help them with the challenge ahead: finding and using clues to get through this pop-up escape room and guide them through.

Dakota Freeman read the challenge aloud to teams of four Greylock students at a time: "It's 1990 and Sprague Electric, the site of the former Arnold Printworks is closed. As a former worker, you are told that you need to go and gather your things. As you enter your office you wonder how North Adams will recover from this. As you reach for your lamp you find a capacitor lying on the ground and decide to pick it up. Once in your hands it begins to vibrate and a small movie projects itself on the ground. The movie contains images of an abandoned factory city with less than 500 residents in the year 2020. The final scene in the movie is a series of eight images and the name S.A.M. ... Those images must be a sign and it is your job to piece together how to save the future of the city. You have no time to lose."

The students, ushered by E3's Matt Bess and Josh Serrano, then disappeared behind the tent's flap.

Inside, the Greylock kids found themselves surrounded by murals of city landmarks, all handpainted on cloth by the E3 Academy students. Various boxes, cabinets and drawers, some locked, stood ready to be combed through for clues, some deliberately set up as red herrings. The kids had 15 minutes to find and piece together parts of a puzzle to reveal the solution for saving the city.

"I found a note! I found a note!" Katie Hall exclaimed to her teammates, who rushed to her side to take a look.

After hours and hours of planning and testing the escape room with their classmates, Bess and Serrano were watching closely to see how the students interacted with each other and the props, and whether the clues would translate in the kids' minds in the way the designers had hoped.

At one point a five-gallon bucket of plastic balls that was set up for students to dig through for clues was completely upturned.

Bess' jaw dropped. "I didn't think they would empty it," he said.

As the minutes and seconds ticked by, the pioneering team made progress, but still had to find one more piece.

MarlieAnna Auger tilted her head back and shouted, "We're going to fail this! We're going to be stuck in here forever!"

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But eventually, her classmates came through and they put the missing puzzle piece in place with about 30 seconds to spare.

Asked what he liked about it, fourth-grader Jaxson Pilot said, "Everything."

Asked if he knew much about the landmarks, like the former mills and the Arnold Printworks artwork, Pilot gave a half-shrug and said, "Kinda. I pass by it a lot."

Greylock Elementary physical education teacher Nicole Esposito noted that learning about where you live is part of the elementary school curriculum. She said of the project, "It's also critical thinking and it's definitely engaging."

The concept for the escape room was twofold. Freeman recognized the fact that a lot of people come to the city to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. But, she said, once people leave the museum, "there's not a lot around for people to do that has to do with the town of North Adams."

So by combining the city's history with the concept of an escape room, the E3 students felt they would be able to create a portable experience that could be used for both educational and entertainment purposes, and set up at either schools or community events.

Tyler Caron and Tiara Myers spent the afternoon at Greylock quizzing the fourth-graders with history trivia about the city.

They found that students who did the escape room before doing the quiz tended to get more correct answers than their peers who were quizzed cold.

"I think that when they learn [about this history] when they're young, it gets more ingrained into their brains," Caron said.

"I hope they learn about caring for the community and acknowledging what they have here before it's gone," Freeman said.

Said Myers: "It's changed so much already."


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