UConn 4-H Escape Moves to the Next Level

group of girls wearing masks with their screen that says Escape RoomThe UConn 4-H program introduced escape rooms in 2019 as a tool for teaching concepts and content to youth in a fun and interactive manner. This saw great success among audiences of all ages and was repeated a second time in early 2020. Then March 2020 introduced the pandemic and shuttered all in-person 4-H programming. This necessitated the need to switch gears and discover new ways to reach young people in non-traditional formats.

Thus, the 4-H Escapes digital breakout website begun. There was a desire to replicate the success of these in-person breakout activities into a format that could be delivered in the new digital environment everyone suddenly found themselves living in. We designed the first digital escape room activity titled The Secret Clover Stash in the summer of 2020. This first escape room was very rudimentary in its presentation due to limited knowledge by designers at the time. Over the course of the summer new skills were learned and more sophisticated ways to present the content was developed. Using Google Drive software such as Sites, Slides, Forms and Docs, designers crafted immersive, educational experiences for youth using video game design concepts. Similar to the live escape rooms, this digital model challenged participants to solve a series of puzzles to unlock doors to delve deeper into the experience until they reach their ultimate goal.

From the beginning, the desire of the design team was to develop a series of digital breakout experiences on a variety of topics. Many teachers from around the country have used this format to create fun and interactive learning opportunities for their students. However, there was nothing that directly focused on 4-H themed topics. Therefore UConn Extension 4-H educators Marc Cournoyer and Emily Alger began creating content that would fill this void. The Secret Clover Stash was the first but not the last. Since its start in the spring of 2020 the 4-H Escape website now houses a total of seven separate digital breakout activities with more added regularly.

This led to additional partnerships within UConn, as well as with outside educators from other institutions around the country. In the spring of 2021, Michael Puglisi from the UConn Department of Nutritional Sciences inquired on ways to potentially partner some of his students with the design team. Like 4-H, the EFNEP program was in search of innovative ways to deliver educational content to their youth audiences throughout the state. 4-H educators partnered with nutritional sciences undergraduate students to give them the tools to create additional content they would be able to deliver electronically to their audiences. This was a win for everyone, since now EFNEP had new resources and the 4-H Escapes website benefited from the additional content available to their growing audiences.

The summer of 2021 saw the addition of undergraduate Colleen Brady to the design team as part of her summer internship with the Windham County 4-H STEM program. Colleen quickly became a valuable asset to the team designing five new digital breakout activities during the summer months. She is now serving as a peer mentor to the next batch of nutrition students who are interested in becoming content designers.

The growth of the 4-H Escape project goes beyond UConn as partnerships have been developed with 4-H educators throughout the country. This includes universities such as Michigan State, Virginia Tech, the University of Wisconsin. The most recent partner is a 4-H educator from Hawaii who was interested in replicated The Secret Clover Quest to use with her 4-H members throughout the state.

There is also a proposal to design a 4-H horse themed digital breakout in partnership with Dr. Jen Nadeau of the UConn Department of Animal Science to be presented in the spring of 2022 at a national level conference.  This will provide the design team with additional opportunities to share what they have created and the various ways this technology can be replicated and used throughout the country.

The greatest value is that this resource is not limited by geographic borders or space limitations.  Anyone can participate from anywhere.  For more information of the program contact Marc Cournoyer at marc.cournoyer@uconn.edu or 860-774-9600.  All digital breakout activities can be found at https://4-h-escape.extension.uconn.edu/.

UConn 4-H is the youth development program of UConn CAHNR Extension. 4-H is a community of over 6 million young people across America who are learning Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), leadership, citizenship and life skills through their 4-H project work. 4-H provides youth with the opportunity to develop lifelong skills including civic engagement and healthy living. Learn more and enroll your child in the UConn 4-H program at http://4-H.uconn.edu/.

UConn CAHNR Extension has more than 100 years’ experience strengthening communities in Connecticut and beyond. Extension programs address the full range of issues set forth in CAHNR’s strategic initiatives:

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Programs delivered by Extension reach individuals, communities, and businesses in each of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities.

Article by Marc Cournoyer