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Campus Technology Insider Podcast May 2022

Listen: How an Escape Room Is Building Students' Digital Skills at Northampton Community College

Rhea Kelly: Hello and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast! I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.

Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania recently won an Instructional Technology Council award for excellence in e-learning, recognizing its Smart Apartment Learning Lab: a combination escape room and technology sandbox in which students can learn about the tech we take for granted in our everyday lives. Picture a homey space in which the walls literally have eyes — or rather cameras and other sensors, integrated into seemingly innocuous objects like picture frames, the refrigerator or even a robotic cat. For this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Beth Ritter-Guth, associate dean of online learning and educational technology at the college, to find out how the Learning Lab is engaging students, building digital literacy and providing valuable training in the job skills of the future. Here's our chat.

Hi Beth, welcome to the podcast.

Beth Ritter-Guth: Thank you so much for having me.

Kelly: So you recently won an award from the Instructional Technology Council for a project called the Smart Apartment Learning Lab. Could you describe what the Learning Lab is and what it's all about?

Ritter-Guth: Absolutely. So the Smart Apartment Learning Lab, the SALL, is located at the Fowler Family Center at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Northampton has three campuses: one in the east side of Bethlehem, one on the south side of Bethlehem, the Fowler center, and then one in Monroe County. And the Smart Apartment is located down at Fowler, in the basement of an old Bethlehem Steel building. So it's a cool location. And when I started at Northampton, in 2019, I had come from a community college in New Jersey, where I had an innovation space. And I had always wanted to take innovative pieces and make an apartment, a living space, where students and the community could think about technology in the spaces where they live. So we have a lot of great technology that shares data wirelessly. What are the benefits? What are the risks? And how does that apply to everyday people? So I was very fortunate. When I came to Northampton in 2019, I said this when I was being interviewed that I had this dream of this space, and college funding, everybody knows this who's listening knows that you have to ask every year for capital funds. And in many institutions, sometimes you have to ask a few years in a row before you actually get funding for something like this, a big idea that's completely different than anything anybody's done before. So I figured, well, I'm brand new, I'll ask, they'll say no, and I'll just ask again next year, because I'll have been here a whole year and have convinced them how cool it would be. So I asked for this Smart Apartment, the space, the money to build it. And they approved it. And I was blown away, because then I had to do it and I was like, Wow, that's awesome. So Northampton really does honor its mission to, to share cutting-edge technology with its students in the community. And so we built the Smart Apartment. So it started with finding a space, which, we found a great space in Fowler, which we also have a crime scene apartment in the Fowler basement. And we also have a blood spatter splatter classroom down there. So this space, so Northampton is a) known for this kind of like innovation, and we also have space in the basement of this fantastic historical building for the people who live in Bethlehem.

Kelly: It sounds kind of like a ghoulish hotel.

Ritter-Guth: It is, it's a little, it's creepy, because, you know, the Bethlehem Steel was a steel company and one of the oldest buildings at the steel. And the bathrooms are like so, you know, 1930. Like they're just, and it was mostly men that worked at the Bethlehem Steel. So, you know, there's just like every bathroom has urinals in it, you know, in the basement. They remodeled all the top floors, but the basement is still kind of like, it's creepy because you know, the EMT folks are down there, the police training folks are down there. We have storage units full of stuff for all of those disciplines, you know, the blood spatter room and the crime scene apartment. We have stuff for all that. It's just like this amazing space. And then we have in the corner, like these two huge rooms filled with books for our cops and kids program. So we have all these like children's books. And then all this other stuff. It's like this great space. So, so we have this space. And then we bought, the most expensive thing we have in the room is a smart refrigerator. And then we, and it's just outfitted like a, and I'll give you the link to, to a ThingLink where you can kind of take a virtual tour. So the most expensive thing is the refrigerator. And then it goes down to the least expensive thing is probably, I'd say the picture frame. We have a, we have a nannygram, a nanny cam in our picture frame. So we built an escape room in this Smart Apartment, so that people could come and physically do it. And the first question we ask, which I won't tell you the answer to, is, how many cameras and how many mics are in this room? And I will give you a hint: It's more than 10, less than 100. But in this small room, how many things are watching you, how many things are listening to you, aside from your phone that you're carrying? And that, that unlocks the first clue. And people are surprised with all the different things that have cameras in it, and, and how you really can put a camera in anything now, because the cameras are sold, you know, by themselves and then you can put them in anything. So even if it's not in something you bought, you could put it in something you have.

Kelly: Wow. I was gonna ask how many smart technologies are in there, but I think that might spoil the escape room.
Ritter-Guth: Well, I'll give you a list of some of the things we have. The, the whole room is powered by Alexa. So we have a microwave that partners with Alexa, we have a clock that partners with Alexa, the TVs partner with Alexa. The deadliest thing in the room is a diffuser that I bought for $19.99 on Amazon. You're thinking well, how's that deadliest thing in that room? Well, here's how. So all of the, all of the devices have some kind of app that run it. And so you use your phone app, and you have it start up the diffuser and, you know makes the apartment smell like roses. But you could also create a chemical, put it in the diffuser, leave, launch it and kill everything in the room. And if you're somebody looking at a crime scene, if you want to be a crime scene investigator, or you're going into the police academy, how would you even know to look for that? How would you even know that would be something because it, when you look at it, it's this little vase that's like plastic and like it's like a little pretty ornament. You would never think to look at this little thing and think that's the crime, that's the weapon.

Kelly: It's kind of like those, those murder mysteries where the weapon was like a dagger made out of ice, so it melts.

Ritter-Guth: Exactly. So you don't think about that stuff when you buy it. Right? You don't think about, you know, what the risks are. There are, the only thing the apartment doesn't have is a smart bathroom. We could put one in because we do have plumbing available there. But, you know, right now we don't, we're not, we're not quite there at the smart bathroom stage yet. But we do have a smart bed. So if you think about healthcare, and you think about preparing nurses, which community colleges often do, you know, if you're a nurse in a drug treatment facility, and you're working with folks who are going through recovery, we used to pee in hats back in the day in, in hospitals, right? And then they would measure it and check for drug use and things like that. Now we have smart toilets that can analyze everything and you don't need the little hat. You can do everything in the toilet. How would you as a nurse know, if that was hacked? How would you know? And then we have, you know, we have beds, we have smart beds to make sure people are moving around and rolling around and things like that. How would you know if that's hacked? And what would you do if it was hacked? Right? What, you know, our tendency if we get hacked, if our computer gets hacked, is let me, let me turn it off or unplug it or shut it down or whatever. That's not what you should do if your computer gets hacked. You keep it open, you leave it as it is and you call 911 or, you know, you call your IT department or whatever. You don't shut anything down because there are often kill switches involved and things like that. So for the forensic team to do their job, you have to leave it in the state you found it when it was hacked. How would you know that as a nurse? You know, how would you even recognize, you know, somebody wanted to kill somebody. You know, we've seen and you can look at all this stuff on YouTube, but you, I mean, you can go down a rabbit hole. You can hack a pacemaker. Anything with a chip can be hacked. So how would you know as a working professional that something was not right.

Kelly: It's like all these traditional vocations, they now also need IT training.

Ritter-Guth: Yep. As community college educators, you know, we teach people how to build these things. We teach them how to sell these things. We teach them how to install them. Right? So, you know, at the community college, we're preparing the workforce. So they need to know how to think critically, because the technology will change. You know, we're just at the beginning, you know, part of this kind of technology, you know, and there's so much out there that most people just have never heard of, and don't even know that it's going on. So, you know, futurists like me are always thinking about that kind of technology. The most popular thing in the apartment is a smart cat. There's a, they also have dogs, there are corgis and there are cats, and they come in different colors. And they purr, they roll over, and they meow, the cats, the little dogs bark, and wag their tail, or whatever. And they cost 99 bucks, which you know, will be cheaper, things get cheaper over time, right? So they'll be cheaper, and they're kind of considered toys. So most popular thing in the room. And the nursing department has sort of taken over our cat named Pumpkin. They named him and got her a little collar. And, and they used to like bring her back and put her back on the shelf. And then I was like, you know, just keep Pumpkin there until somebody else needs her. So then they pass Pumpkin around to our funeral service department I think gets her, I think our dental department gets her, and they kind of share Pumpkin.

Kelly: That's the Learning Lab mascot.

Ritter-Guth: That is the Learning Lab… I want more, I want the corgi dog next.

Kelly: It's interesting to hear about all the different purposes that the room serves. I mean, I've heard you mention several things. There's like the, the escape room aspect. There's, it's kind of a technology sandbox for just being able to be around and tinker with the technologies and maybe gain some digital literacy skills. And also this sort of hands-on workplace skills, I think are interesting. Did you have kind of learning outcomes in mind when designing the room?

Ritter-Guth: Well, we wanted to build the room and then work with faculty to meet their course learning outcomes. So the course learning outcomes for like criminal justice will be different than, you know, Nursing 101. Right? So the instructional designer, there are two, one that works on non-credit side, one that works on credit side, Marshal and Sarah, and I work with faculty to meet their instructional goals. So the room itself, we open up to the public so they can come in for free. We have a lot of Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops coming in, Boys and Girls Club is right nearby. And we've done outreach to the schools. And we've also had community groups like the Eastern Pennsylvania services for disabilities come in to talk about how the technology can help persons with, you know, different abilities. So it's open and it's free. So the problem was, right as soon as, we were ready to cut the ribbon, like the President was going to come, we had a date set, we're going to do like a cake and launch the room, March of 2020. So then the room sat, you know, for two years, and because of where it is and the building and the age of the building, we couldn't have more than, even when we started sort of opening things up a little bit, you really couldn't have more than six people in the room. You know, we did get ventilation in there because it's in a basement, you know, but we're still we're just now getting back to full capacity. And even then we're being cautious, because you have to touch the things for the escape room. Right? Like you have to touch, there are things that are both, that are internet of things, but also some basic sort of, you know, sleuthery, you know, puzzle kinds of things to help out. Like the smart fridge, we have a smart fridge, which you're thinking, you know, why would anybody hack a smart fridge? Well, it's not necessarily that you'd hack a smart fridge. But a smart fridge has a cam has cameras on the inside, which are great if you want to see what your elderly mother is eating to make sure she's eating every day, and whatever she might need from the store. But it also has cameras on the outside. So if you are, want to stalk your neighbor, or you want to be a predator of any kind, you can hack those cameras and spy into people's very intimate lives in their kitchen. You know, their family, their children, you know, the object of focus, right? So it's creepy, what can watch you in your house.

Kelly: Yeah, so that actually made me wonder, you have so many hackable devices in the room. Did you need to work with IT or something to make sure that those technologies are isolated or, you know, can't be used to hack into the campus network?

Ritter-Guth: So that's a great question. So, you know, innovation, Innovative Technologies sometimes works hand in hand with ITS and sometimes we, we like stress them out. And at the time my department reported to Academic Affairs, we have now actually moved to the IT department, we've been moved recently, through some restructuring. But I have to say at the time, the ITS department was really, really great. Because when I envisioned the room I built into the plan that it would be off of the network, and it would have its own entire network. Because the goal, which I really want to get back to you, because this was the goal, going into the pandemic, is to work with schools internationally, that they can hack our room. And then we have to solve it, right, because the only way that you can teach hacking, I teach pen testing, the only way that you can teach it is to teach, you have to teach people how to hack, and then how to know that something has been hacked, and then how to fix it. And then how to communicate to the folks that you're working for to say, here are where the weak places are, here's what needs to be addressed. You know, the number one thing that's hackable is the human. Right, people give out too much information. And people can figure out passwords and things like that. So IT helped us create that room, they were they were very helpful. But they did at the time, were very concerned that they would not be held accountable if the college got hacked because of that room. They were very, very, very passionate about, like, we are not involved in this crazy project that you're doing. But you know, you could break, you can hack everything in that room, and it will not touch the college. And I always say like our, our purpose is to teach build, break, defend. So you can't learn to defend something if it hasn't been broken. And you are a better defender if, you know, it's just like learning about fire, right? You don't learn how to put out a grease fire by just talking about it, you actually have to go to training and learn how to put out a grease fire. And that's what the fire companies do. So it's very much the same principle. We want to give them a space to learn that.

Kelly: It seems to me also that the technology for internet, internet of things devices, it just you know, it's developing so quickly. So how often do you think you'll need to update the technology in the room?

Ritter-Guth: That's a good question. And actually one that we struggle with because, you know, the room sat for two years, you know, and frigerator refrigerators have gotten better. You know, the one we have is a great fridge, it was $4000 when we bought it, that fridge is now $2000 and better fridges have come out. And how often do you refresh a room like that? So I don't know the best answer to that question other than to say that, you know, we look, we'll look at the technology again at the end of this coming year. And see, you know, do we need to upgrade the Ring? Do we need to upgrade, like sort of the pieces that people use? And we constantly have to be on top of it, to make sure that the technology is still relevant. Right? And like you have to upgrade the apps all the time too, because the apps often update, right? You know, for the cat, the app updates, the fridge that that up, you have to update that. So you have to kind of stay on top of all of the apps that have to be updated.

Kelly: Oh, yeah, I didn't even think of the software side. But yeah, I can imagine. And then again, like with, with a fridge, you know, it's not like people in their homes update their fridge every couple of years, you know, they're gonna keep it for, or hope to keep it for 10.

Ritter-Guth: Especially if you paid $4,000 for it.

Kelly: Exactly. So I suppose like if you know, if you're in the field of, of investigating crimes in someone's house, and you wanted to see if someone had hacked into their fridge, it might be an older fridge. So I wanted to dive more into the escape room aspect.

Ritter-Guth: Sure.

Kelly: And so could you talk about, you know, like, how do you create an escape room puzzle?

Ritter-Guth: So I'm a certified, I actually certified to make escape rooms. So I went to training. But the easiest way, because I do both in-person and virtual escape rooms, the best way is to start at the end. Where are you putting the key at the end, right? So in our particular escape room, you have to get into a safe, which is a biometric safe that's tied only to my fingerprint. So it has a backup key. That's what you have to find because the paychecks are in this safe. So you start backwards, and then you build your puzzles to the front side. So what's good, where are you going to put the key that unlocks the safe. So then you put the key there, how are you going to find where that key is, and then you just kind of make puzzles, but you go backwards with the puzzles. So the first, I'll tell you the, you know, and you'll have to come to the room, but the first, the first thing that you have to do is we show you a video, a welcome video that talks about the room that just says there's nothing on the ceiling. There's nothing behind the paintings. There's nothing underneath, you know, the furniture, underneath the couches, or whatever. And that you only have an hour to work, or you have 30 minutes to work on the puzzles. And, you know, we'll be watching you, you know, we kind of lock you in there and then we're, we're actually watching you on one of the many cameras. Usually on the phone camera, in our office we're watching. And we do give hints, especially to the scout troops, we'll give them like, little hints. And they can use, you know, they can use a hint too. So we got, we give them extra time. We plan an hour for each group, but then, you know, at half hour, we'll give them 15 more minutes and kind of help them out. Because we want them… Professional escape rooms, they want more money from you. So it's to their advantage for you not to solve it. So you have to pay the 20 bucks again, and keep going back till you solve it. It's not in our advantage to not have successful students. So we give them hints, we give them time. So, so you build back the puzzles to the beginning. And we're getting ready to do a new, we've done, we've had the same escape room for a year. So now we're building a new one for fall.

Kelly: Oh, yeah, I hadn't thought to ask how often you change up the escape, you know, steps. You mentioned also virtual escape rooms. So how does that work? It just seems like you'd need something hands on.

Ritter-Guth: So I use, there's a lot of different ways to do it, the way that I do it, the way that I like to do it the most is using the ThingLink platform. So and then using Google. So I'll make a digital lockbox in Google. And then there's different things that you have to solve, and then put the combinations into the Google spreadsheet, and then it unlocks the next clue and the next clue and the next clue. And it's things like solving Morse code, doing different, you know, different puzzles. You know, I like to do them, those I do for my literature classes, to unlock some kind of way to introduce, you know, some kind of boring literature that they're not maybe going to like. So a way to introduce them to something like Dante's Inferno, and then I have them make little escape rooms, you know, on content in Dante's Inferno, so that they become very engaged in the content also.

Kelly: That sounds perfect, you have to unlock each level of hell.

Ritter-Guth: Yes. You don't get ahead of the inferno until you get through the three-headed serpent, get up to purgatory.

Kelly: Do you ever have students design their own escape experiences?

Ritter-Guth: We would love that. That kind of is, that is always my goal is to have the students making them. Because the more that we can put in the hands of students, the better the experience is, because they, they are going to come up with infinitely better connections to the world in which they live. Right? So that is our goal. That is one of my goals, hopefully for next year is to get a group of students to come in and build their, their own escape room, and then have, you know, other students do it. So a good way to do that at the college level is to work through clubs. So I want to partner with our Student Government Association, to have them maybe build a Halloween escape room, and then use it as a fundraiser for SGA. And then, you know, they'll create it, and then they'll staff it. We'll be there with them to help with the technology, but they, they get to make it and then they get to, you know, you know, staff it and do what students do best, which is hang out and have fun. And they all get to see the technology in a non-threatening way. Right? Because I could teach you about Amazon, like I could teach you about the Alexa, I can teach you, I can teach you how to hack. You know, I can tell you how we hack a camera and put it in somebody's house. But it's a lot different when you're in that room and then somebody's spying on you. You know, like that's a whole different thing.

Kelly: Do you have any advice for anyone who would want to sort of recreate this concept on their own campus?

Ritter-Guth: Think big and bold and brave, always. Always think about, I always have at the front of my mind, what students are going to need to know 20 years from now. Because if I think back in my own lifetime to what we had 20 years ago, nobody would have predicted things like Bitcoin, and, you know, drones and all the different things that we have. Like we don't, you know, we don't know what's coming 20 years from now, but we do know that the skills that students need are adaptability, thinking creatively and, you know, really being resilient to change because things change so rapidly in their world. You know, you know, my father who worked at the steel, which is the irony of this whole thing, my father was a steel worker, and generations of Bethlehem people were steel workers. And when I went to college, I had to pay for myself to go because my mom didn't understand why I wouldn't want to just be a steel worker's wife. Everybody else was a steel worker's wife. Why don't, why don't you want to be one, what's wrong with you? What's the matter with you? Why do you want to go to college? And then a few short later, years later, the Bethlehem Steel went under, you know, because that we don't have jobs like that anymore, that last forever, and generations forever. So we really have to help students see, I mean they know their world changes all the time, we're not telling them things they don't know. But we're giving them opportunities to put hands on technology that they may not be able to afford. Our students can't afford a $4,000 fridge, you know, so we have, you know, we have the opportunity to give all of these students access to that kind of technology, which is low risk to them, but high yield in skills. And you know, Elon Musk is going to need employees that know how to do this stuff, you know, Virgin Galactic, they're going to need employees who know how to build, break and defend the things that go on these chips that take people out to outer space. And so I want, you know, I'm so thankful that Northampton has allowed me to be able to be a visionary. Not a lot of schools can afford to do that. And I've been very thankful that Northampton has supported me.

Kelly: Yeah, so I like that, think big, but also don't be afraid to ask for the funding, it sounds like.

Ritter-Guth: Nope, yeah. And be bold, like, like, you know, when I was faculty, when I was full-time faculty, I was always that English professor who was doing the weird stuff. I was not popular among other English faculty. And when I went for tenure, the people who wanted, who most wanted me not to get it were other English faculty, because at the time I was using Second Life to teach Dante's Inferno. And they said, This is not the way we teach English. This is not the accepted practice. I didn't care. Because I didn't care about tenure, I didn't care. I'm like this is, I know that, you know, 10 years from now I'm gonna see a student at the grocery store. And they're gonna say, I remember layers, I, circle six. I remember because I was on that team. And I remember doing that. And that is the truth. I mean, I see people all the time who remember going on a virtual pilgrimage for the Canterbury Tales, and all the different, I use Grand Theft Auto to teach literature, and Fallout and things like that, video games. And people from, the students remember that stuff. You know, I think, be bold and brave. And people are going to think that you're nuts. And they're not always going to value your vision. But if you're ethical, and you follow your heart, and you keep your student learning outcomes in mind all of the time, don't worry about that other stuff. You know, don't, don't, don't be afraid to be different. You know, be bold, be brave, and people will come along, you know, or they won't, and who met, who cares? You know, because they're not remembering what, you know, their students aren't remembering what they read in their classes. I was given very good advice, by Maggie McMenamin, who's the president at Union County College in New Jersey. She was my vice president when I was at the college that I taught at. And she said to me one day, and I was a young professor, she said, if you're going to kick up the sand, expect to get sand in your eye. That bold, crazy teacher, that's really cool, you're not going to be liked by everybody around you. Because they're not doing it that way. And they want you to fall into their ranks. So expect to get sand in your eyes. So just have tough skin. And just say, I know that this is good for students, and trust your gut.

Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for coming on. That was really fascinating and fun.

Ritter-Guth: And you're all welcome to come and you can give out my e-mail if people want to do the virtual, the virtual escape room, or, you know, like I said, we're doing our new, our newest one. So we're happy to send out the link. There's no cost. You know, we have like a little feedback thing at the end that just to track data and stuff and to get feedback and assess the room, and the success and places where it needs to grow. Because this technology always changes and there's always a way to improve it.

Kelly: Yeah, yeah. I'll look forward to checking it out.

Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify and Stitcher, or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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