Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt: Derek Bruff and Cryptography Escape Rooms
By Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern
During Spring 2020, the Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt blog series will highlight teaching innovations that CFT staff have implemented and evaluated in their own courses.
I heard about Dr. Derek Bruff’s teaching innovation before I started working at the CFT from my freshman RA. She had been in Bruff’s First-Year Writing Seminar (FYWS), MATH 1111, on Cryptography and had loved it. It’s easy to understand why when I learned about how Bruff designed a course-themed escape room.
Bruff’s FYWS for the math department incorporates learning and using ciphers and codes as well as their history. Additionally, the course regularly discusses relevant current news on the application and implications of encryption for modern privacy and surveillance. Students hone their writing skills through technical and popular writing. For example, Bruff has students describe the story of a specific cipher or code. Previous students’ works have been published on the Wonders & Marvels blog and Bruff has now made it a podcasting assignment.
Bruff also includes an activity that gets students working together to apply what they’ve learned in class. A little past halfway through the course, after students have already learned how to solve and use ciphers, there is a “Flex Day” planned in the syllabus. On that day, when students walk into the classroom, they are greeted with a code written on the chalkboard and a lockbox. The clue on the board leads them to another and then another for a total of about four or five clues to open the box. Each clue is written in code and requires students to apply what they’ve learned in the course and work together in this classroom-equivalent of a cryptography-themed escape room. Inside the lockbox is often candy and a second lockbox with a clue to open that. Within the second lockbox is a prize which varies from year to year. One year, the prize was a congratulatory message recorded by the author of a novel students read for class.
Students thoroughly enjoy the escape room. As one of Bruff’s students said on the course evaluation: “This is what I came to college for.” Students enthusiastically participate and have taken selfies and posted them on social media, tagging them #FlexDay. Students get a chance to apply what they’ve learned—and realize just how much they’ve learned. It’s a fun way to synthesize many aspects of the course while getting students out of their comfort zone and engaging students who might not be active in the class day-to-day.
The original motivation for this activity was necessity: Bruff knew he’d be absent for a conference and so created this activity to engage students while he was away. He was inspired by Anthony Crider’s thoughts on Epic Finales—rather than end a course with a final exam, Crider created epic quests for students to end on a high note. Bruff, however, thinks that an advantage to doing this sort of activity closer to the middle of the course is that it bonds the class and encourages a sense of community that can be enjoyed for the rest of the course. However, an activity like this wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate at the beginning of the course because students first need to learn the skills they’ll need from the course.
Other considerations include the length of the assignment so that it is the right length for a class period. This takes a good amount of prep work up front but it is easier to implement in subsequent years. Nowadays, Bruff tweaks the clues and varies the final prize from year to year. For when Bruff isn’t on campus for the activity, he has had assistants in the classroom to watch students’ progress and when Bruff is on campus he often finds a spot to “eavesdrop” on the class and live tweets their progress.
For others looking to incorporate something similar in their course, Bruff suggests that this could be an engaging review for a test or possibly an exercise in digital literacy, with students looking up answers to clues with a guiding worksheet. It could be directly relevant to certain courses where students learn skills that could translate into solving clues—for example, how much more engaging might chemistry be if solving a synthesis problem gave you the final clue to unlock a box of candy? For courses where an escape room may not work, Bruff still considers that a group bonding activity where students can apply what they’ve learned could be a wonderful tool for instructors.
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