UCalgary podcasts feature interviews with experts from our community on the COVID-19 situation.
Episode 29: Escape with STEM
June 26, 2020
In this episode we talk with Brennan O'Yeung, a third-year student in the Schulich School of Engineering and founder of Escape with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Escape with STEM creates escape room experiences designed to inspire young Indigenous students to enter STEM fields. Brennan joins us to talk about moving the program online during the pandemic and expanding the scope to make it accessible for all students.
Brennan O'Yeung (BOY): I think everyone has different strengths. Some are focused more on analytical aspects whereas some are a little more visual and creative. Sometimes you just need to bounce ideas off each other in order to work together to solve a problem.
Deborah Yedlin (DY): That was Brennan O'Yeung, a student with the Schulich School of Engineering. And this is UCalgary COVIDcast. I'm Deborah Yedlin. Thanks for joining us. Traditionally the disciplines in science, technology, engineering and math have seen an underrepresentation from certain demographic groups. We know women are underrepresented in the STEM fields, as are indigenous students. Today on COVIDcast, we're talking with Brennan O'Yeung, a third year student in our Schulich School of Engineering. BOY is the founder of Escape with STEM, a program that introduces young students to STEM disciplines through escape room experiences. Brennan's program visit schools and takes students through the escape rooms designed to inspire indigenous students to get into the STEM fields and pursue those careers. During the coronavirus pandemic, he's moved the program online. Brennan joins us today to talk about the goals of the program, how it works and how students are responding. Thanks for joining us Brennan.
BOY: Thank you so much, Chancellor Yedlin. It's a pleasure to be on COVIDcast.
DY: So tell us, how did you come up with this idea in the first place?
BOY: Well, I can definitely say that part of my inspiration came from the first time I ever did an escape room. After spending a month at the University of British Columbia for the Shad Valley Program in grade 10, I explored B.C. during a trip with my parents. On the trip, we visited Richmond and I came across an ad for escape rooms while scrolling through Facebook. I was intrigued by what I saw, so I told my dad, hey, we should do an escape room, they look pretty cool. My dad was also interested, so we went later and we tried one of the easiest rooms. Interestingly enough, we were able to get out of the room and we loved the experience so much that we asked to do another one right afterwards.
DY: Wow. I haven't done an escape room. I only remember seeing an episode about an escape room on The Big Bang Theory.
BOY: The one where Sheldon Cooper and the rest of the gang go into the escape room and finish within like five minutes and just like blow them away.
DY: Yeah. So did you finish in five minutes? What about the second one? How did you do?
BOY: So the second one... Well, the first one, we actually got out with five minutes left, and I was like, man, that's the easiest room. Oh man, we're in for a treat on the second one. But I think after we got the hang of it, I think we were able to do a little bit better. We still finished with just a few minutes left, but it definitely was a really, really challenging experience that was a lot of fun.
DY: So I take it you're not claustrophobic.
BOY: Not particularly. Although sometimes I do... Every time I do step into an elevator, I always have this pit in my stomach just in case that I get stranded in that elevator.
DY: But that's not something that you feel when you're in an escape room because you know you can get out just in case.
BOY: Yes, for sure. And you know, I like the challenge too, so I'm a little more motivated on the task at hand.
DY: So tell us how Escape with STEM works.
BOY: Actually so, first, I'd just like to tell some of the listeners who may not be familiar with escape rooms, how they work. So an escape room is where a group of people are locked in a room and they're given a time limit to escape. So this is usually an hour. The team will then need to solve puzzles, look around for hidden items, discover different rooms and work together to escape. It is really a lot of fun and a really good team building experience. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is up for a challenge. Now with Escape with STEM, where STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, I wanted to make a portable escape room type experience to bring to students directly. Our goal is to inspire Indigenous youth to pursue an interest in STEM and potential career paths through fun, thought provoking escape room experiences. What we do with our puzzles is that we design them from scratch, tailoring them to highlight a concept of STEM. And we also build them from scratch as well. To give a better perspective, one example is a shadow box puzzle that uses the concept of light and shadow. The students are given a box and a lock that needs to be opened. Inside the box, there are eight tetra-shaped pieces, markings on the bottom of the box that have numbers on them, two flashlights and a sheet of questions. Although the tetra-shape blocks may not look like much, when students solve the questions, they will be able to find the correct location of the Tetris blocks that are given by the markings with numbers. When all the blocks are placed correctly and the flashlights are shone towards them, they cast a shadow on the back wall of the box, creating the shape of four numbers that can be used to open the lock. So therefore, with the shadow box puzzle and several other completed puzzles, we usually bring six different puzzles to our participants and we set them up at stations with a trained volunteer at each station to help facilitate and work with students as they go along. Each volunteer is also part of a different faculty at the University of Calgary, such as math, veterinary science, biological science, engineering, and much more. The students are then split into groups of three to a maximum five, as those numbers allow all of the members to be hands-on at all times with the puzzles. And for each station, they will have approximately 10 minutes to solve the puzzle and the volunteers will help guide students as needed so that they're able to solve it within the time limit. And additionally, for every station, they will receive a small puzzle piece that needs to be used in the final puzzle. Once all the students have experienced all the stations, they will then need to work together with all of their puzzle pieces to solve the final safe, which inside has a small treat, some chocolate or a small little prize to reward them for all their hard work. We then do a short debrief afterwards just to go over the puzzles and some of the STEM concepts covered, talk about potential careers and links for further exploration, and we also have the volunteer speak just a little bit more about their university major to inspire the students. Now with COVID-19, Escape with STEM cannot be delivered in person. I still wanted to be able to make a difference in my community and inspire students. So I developed a website, www.escapewithstem.com, to create that online presence and engage students at home as they have more free time. We are currently using various delivery platforms, as we first started with just typed out puzzles where students could do the work by themselves and check the solutions a week later. We then transitioned into using a Google form for a more escape room feel, where students would enter answers into the site to progress. And finally now, we are actually developing clickable virtual escape rooms where students will actually need to apply their knowledge and search around the screen in order to find the answers that will contribute to unlocking a final code. I know from speaking to friends and family that parents have difficulties working with kids and teaching the curriculum. So by introducing online escape rooms, we are able to help those parents and also extend our reach to all students, not just indigenous ones.
DY: So tell me, you talked about the concepts that are covered. What STEM concepts do you cover in your puzzles?
BOY: So we have a variety of different concepts. So like I mentioned, we have the light and shadow box at the start. We also have a magnetism puzzle where we have a narrow tube with a key inside and the tube is narrow and long enough that a student can't just put their hand in and reach the key. And this key will be needed to open a lock that has a puzzle piece. We also have a maze where students will need to guide a metal marble through the maze without dropping it. But the catch for this is that they have to use communication, because only one person can actually see the layout of the maze and the others are actually controlling the maze with a stick that has a magnet underneath. So therefore, the person who has the visual representation of the maze will have to explain to their team, hey, you need to go forward, backwards, left, and right, in order to navigate the marble out of the maze, in which then that will push out a magnet. And from there, the magnet can be used to pull up the key from the inside of the tube and open the lock.
DY: And when you talk about communication, so I'm wondering how important is communication overall to the experience and the success of the teams that participate in the escape room challenge.
BOY: I find that typically, teams who are able to communicate, collaborate and leverage each other's strengths, are the teams that are typically the most successful in escape rooms. I realized that, I think everyone has different strengths. Some are focused more on analytical aspects whereas some are a little more visual and creative. Sometimes you just need to bounce ideas off each other in order to work together to solve a problem. And I find that the students who are always constantly talking, sharing ideas and helping their team, are really the ones who are the most successful with solving our escape rooms.
DY: So do you think maybe instead of calling it STEM, you call it STEAM? So it's science, technology, engineering, arts and math?
BOY: That would actually be a very interesting thought. When I thought of Escape with STEM, I really typically thought about just more of the science realm of this, with just science, technology, engineering, mathematics. But there definitely are a lot of visual concepts as well that are part of puzzles and solving. So that definitely would be a consideration for sure.
DY: So tell me what kind of uptake are you seeing in your program, how do you get connected with the schools that you visit, and how did the students respond?
BOY: With building Escape with STEM, I really faced a lot of challenges during the first three years that I worked on it. Some of these obstacles included learning how to secure support and funding from companies and having them see the value in Escape with STEM, being able to pitch ideas to schools and organizations to leverage their connections, and really how to differentiate myself from other organizations in the community. Initially, I started by using money out of my own pocket, and I really struggled getting others to support Escape with STEM. It took a lot of failures and tries before I was able to make my first breakthrough with an indigenous school. But once I established myself, I was really able to grow Escape with STEM to where it is now. In terms of uptake, at this point, we have now been able to reach over a thousand students in person through several schools, organizations, and partnerships. And with the new online presence that we have, Escape with STEM now has this medium to inspire students from the local community. In terms of connecting with the schools that I visit, when I first completed my first puzzles, like I mentioned before, although I reached out to many different schools and corporations and organizations as well, with an unproven project, no one was really interested in my work. And it was really my father first who helped me break through by connecting me to Michael Crothers, Shell Canada's president. But I still needed to present my idea to him and his team to really show the value that Escape with STEM would bring to the community. And for me, it was really exciting when he said that he loved the idea. And from there, he was able to connect me with Christy Morgan, the director of the Boys & Girls Club of Calgary indigenous initiatives. I also ran an event for the Boys & Girls Club during that time when she was able to connect me to the Piitoayis Family School, which is an indigenous elementary school in Inglewood. And from there, we were able to grow Escape with STEM's reach to where we are today. Later on, Shell invited me to be a part of the Soaring Youth Conference, which is the largest indigenous youth empowerment conference in Canada. I was given a 45 minute breakout session to deliver Escape with STEM to over 80 students, which was really interesting because we had only anticipated 30 students. I found that that was really quite the challenge. And during that time, I was so proud of my volunteers and my team, who are not only able to adjust and make the stations more accessible in 15 minutes, but really engage all of those students still. And overall that student was a success. And through being part of that Shell booth as well, we were able to reach over 750 students there. I would really like to thank Shell and the Boys & Girls Club for believing in me when Escape with STEM was just beginning and all of their support over the years. And lastly, related to how do students respond to the program, what we do is, after every program, after it ends, we ask for feedback from teachers, the principal and the organizers. And I'm really happy to say that we've gotten an abundance of positive feedback for our program. They have told us that students don't even realize that we make them work so hard solving the puzzles and learning about STEM because they're having so much fun and are so engaged. And they have also said that students love this hands-on experience. And even the ones that are less interested in class, quickly become focused when solving these puzzles. And after the formal puzzle solving session, we also leave a little bit of time for students to ask questions and have some free play with the students or a free play with the puzzles. Some of these examples are the always popular Airzooka, where we shoot air at the students. And then from there, the students want to shoot their teachers with air again. So we always know that when we do the free time, since we're always like, I want to take a turn on the Airzooka, I want to shoot you Mr. Smith. And there's another one that students really like, it's the remote controlled robot. They always like playing around with the robot and seeing the different functions that can be played on it.
DY: And did you build the robot in engineering with your engineering classmates?
BOY: So this one, I actually did not build. That's actually something that I'm looking to do in the future, looking to partner with some university clubs, such as the Robotics Club, Team Zeus, the Motorcycle Club, and a few others.
DY: So my question is, I think people are trying to visualize, I'm trying to visualize what this looks like. So are you actually, when you go into schools, you're not, are you taking students into a room? You're not. You're actually having them solve puzzles in a sequence so that they can metaphorically escape from the room. Is that right?
BOY: Correct. So what we do is we don't necessarily create a full-on escape room, such as regular escape rooms that are built with a theme and have a lot of electronics built into it. We make it portable by bringing escape room type puzzles. And what we do is we have stations. Like I mentioned before, we'll have six different stations, one for each group of students to be at. And for 10 minutes, they will spend time solving that puzzle along with the guidance of their volunteer. And after that, they will rotate onto the next station until all students have been able to experience every station that we've offered. And then after that, the students will solve a final safe, which will have candy or prizes, and that essentially signals the finishing of the escape room experience.
DY: Okay, so you can do that when you're in person in a classroom. Where's the candy when you're doing it online?
BOY: So our candy, I would like to say is self-fulfillment and the pride of being able to solve an online escape room. We also do have a online certificate that students can download once they've solved a certain number of puzzles. And basically that is essentially the reward or the candy that we provide them online currently.
DY: Have you thought about turning this into an app, a game of some sort, that people can play on their phones?
BOY: I haven't fully thought of that yet. Part of what we're doing right now is we're using the website to spread awareness and to be able to connect students in. I don't know if we... I don't know if I necessarily have the expertise to develop an app, to be able to create Escape with STEM and create the virtual escape rooms yet myself. I'm using various different tools that are provided online and on Google forms and such, to be able to present or to use that as a medium for the puzzles. So I would say that I haven't thought of using an app fully yet.
DY: What kind of traffic are you seeing online?
BOY: Well, when I first created the Escape with STEM website, I only had limited connections to a few schools. And that really meant that I only got around a hundred hits in the first month, which wasn't really what I had hoped for with the website. I then tried to reach out to different media outlets, such as television, radio stations, government, and other organizations to spread the word. And although most did not respond, I had two major people who actually came back to me. And one of these was Candice from the Calgary Flames Foundation. She actually checked out our website, reached out to us, and added our link to the United by Community page as a resource under activities for youth. We also had the United Way of Calgary also tweeting about us on their Twitter. And because of their support, both of these were huge milestones. And since then, we were able to expand our traffic to about a thousand hits and they're continually climbing. I also have potential contacts in the works as well too, which hopefully we'll expand this a little further as well.
DY: Now I think too, like how do you see this, or maybe it already has happened that you're getting traction outside Calgary through Alberta and across the country, because an online platform means anybody can access it. How's that working, or is it?
BOY: For sure. I would say that in terms of most of the hits, I would say that most of the hits are currently in the local community, partially due to the nature of the organizations that we've corresponded with, right? The Flames Foundation and United Way of Calgary. My hope would be to be able to expand this reach to more than just Calgary and Alberta and maybe nationally or even larger than that eventually. But I think currently with the traffic we're seeing, I think right now it's mostly focused on the local community, which is something that I'm happy to do.
DY: So I'm just wondering if you tailor your puzzles in any way that are accessible to indigenous students. How do you connect with them in a way that speaks to them in their culture?
BOY: For a number of our puzzles and a number of our events, especially the ones that we've run for the Boys & Girls Club of Calgary for the Indigenous initiatives, we've actually created puzzles using some of Indigenous culture. So for example, the teepee is actually a very strong structure because it uses those triangular shapes in order to support its load at the top. And from, I guess structure and building type knowledge, the triangle is the strongest shape. And therefore, we have a challenge for students to support an egg above the ground with the least amount of materials. And we give them a lot of different materials and there are a lot of different ways to solve the puzzle. But the most simple way is to create a teepee shape using a few straws and that will essentially hold the egg up. So we always have the kids go a little bit first, try a little bit with the materials that we have. And afterwards, we tell them, okay, I think your solutions were great, but actually your culture ties a little bit into this with the creation of a teepee. And we show them how the teepee is able to support the egg extremely well. And I think that really helps us connect a little more with them. Another way that we actually connect with the Indigenous students is that we bring some Indigenous role models into our rooms. And these typically are some of the students in the community that have been through Escape with STEM before. And from there, they're able to speak to some of the younger students to act as a mentor and a role model.
DY: So what does success look for you? What does it look like for you with this program?
BOY: So for me, I think that success is seeing students be so happy when they're able to solve their puzzles and seeing that aha moment. And another thing is also being able to see my volunteers and how they're also so engaged and excited when delivering Escape with STEM. I think that dual type of inspiration is really powerful and that's something that I want to be able to see with Escape with STEM. I have an actual example of this actually. In one of the schools that we worked with, there is a particular girl who I noted that excelled in these escape rooms. And she was able to even find solutions to our puzzles that weren't the conventional way. And I thought that she was brilliant. And later on when we talked to her mother, she actually was extremely excited and told us that her daughter had been struggling with some written exams and this experience really helped with her confidence. And what we said is that, you know, sometimes people just don't do well with written exams, and that we thought that her daughter would make a great future engineer or scientist one day. And really being able to see that impact that Escape with STEM has made on others in the community, really gives me a sense of fulfillment. And I really hope that these students are able to take what they've experienced with Escape with STEM and take that more into their futures.
DY: So have you had students that have come back to... I mean, you're doing this for three years now. It's a window of time for students to have graduated from school, from high school, and potentially chosen to pursue postsecondary education in some form. Have they come back to you and said, thanks for inspiring me, I actually did find that it was a career path that I want to pursue, and if it wasn't for you, it wouldn't have happened?
BOY: I would actually like to say that we actually are focusing more on the elementary school actually and inspiring the youth at a young age. We figured that, or I wanted to work with youth, especially younger students, because I don't think that they have as many opportunities as some of the other older students who are in junior high and high school. And I also felt that by helping maybe inspire them at a young age, they would explore a little bit more about STEM. And as they go into junior high and high school, build that interest into eventually maybe choosing a potential career path in STEM.
DY: And perhaps the way you approach it breaks down barriers for them, because the perception of it, it might be harder than they think, or it's not as accessible as they think. All of a sudden you presented it in a way that's accessible and they don't look at the disciplines the way they were initially thinking about them.
BOY: Yeah, definitely. I think in the end, I just want the students to have fun. And if they're having fun, they'll be more engaged and hopefully they'll be able to find an interest in what they're doing rather than just sitting in the classroom and writing notes or taking tests.
DY: You were recognized for the United Way for this program, were you not?
BOY: I was.
DY: Tell us about that.
BOY: So in February of 2019, I was actually recognized by the United Way and I received the Culbert Family Award for Philanthropy or Philanthropy, however the correct pronunciation is. Sometimes I always mess that up.
DY: That's great.
BOY: But I was really fortunate to be chosen for that award. And I think that award means a lot more to me than just the recognition and the money I was able to put towards Escape with STEM. That was more a moment that really defined what Escape with STEM was doing for the community. With all the failures that I had in initially setting up, trying to reach out to organizations, at those points, there were times where I thought I would give up and I wouldn't continue pursuing this dream. But with the Culbert Award, it really solidified in me that my dream was possible and that people really saw value in my work. And that really motivated me to continue taking Escape with STEM to new heights and being able to inspire students through any way that I can.
DY: So tell me a bit about your own philanthropic journey. What's inspired you to give back to the community? I mean, you're in university, you're obviously very busy. Where has your desire to give back come from?
BOY: I would say that my inspiration for working in the community and giving back has always been from my parents, my coaches, the people who have always supported me when I was young. For me, my father was my basketball coach, my badminton coach, my soccer coach. My mother would be helping me with school, helping me write my letters, my essays. Those two were always supporting me and I would just love to thank them for everything that they've done for me. In addition to that, I've had so many others who have helped me along this journey. And for me, I just wanted to be able to give just a little bit back to this community. So in elementary junior high, I actually had a lot of volunteer trips to the Drop-in Centre and the women's shelter, to be able to volunteer some time for them. And in high school, I was able to co-found the Sir Winston Churchill Finance Club, be a part of the principal's advisory council to advocate for student voice. And I'm currently still a badminton coach that works with young athletes in order to engage them in badminton and help them with the sport.
DY: What are your career aspirations?
BOY: So I would say that even though I'm in engineering and I'm at an internship right now at TC Energy, I would say I'm still a little bit undecided. I've always had a little bit of passion for both engineering and business. So I think my ultimate goal would be to become an entrepreneur when I'm older. But first I think I would focus on that financial stability first. I think my plan would be to finish my internship and my engineering degree, and then take a master's in business to compliment my engineering skills. And from there, it depends. I may go into a full-time job for a little bit, or if I have some great idea that could change the world, I might pursue that. I would definitely say I'm still a little bit undecided but I'm really excited for what's to come.
DY: Brennan, it's been a pleasure speaking with you today, and it sounds like you're well on your way to making that entrepreneurial journey a reality. I want to thank you for spending time with us and I wish you luck with the rest of your internship and as you go back to school in the fall.
BOY: Thank you so much, Chancellor Yedlin. I would just like to say that Escape with STEM has really been an amazing experience for me. I've been able to learn so many things. How to create a nonprofit organization, how to present to leaders and corporations about my ideas. And most importantly, how to be resilient after failing. Over these three years, I've had students come up to me and say that they want to go into STEM related fields a little bit because of Escape with STEM. And every time I hear that, it really makes me smile. And I am so thankful for the support from my family, volunteers, organizations, such as Shell Canada, the Boys & Girls Club of Calgary, Let's Talk Science, Calgary Flames Foundation, United Way, the University of Calgary, and the Schulich School of Engineering to name a few, that have helped shape Escape with STEM into what it is today. And just in closing, a shameless plug, please check out www.escapewithstem.com and please try some of the puzzles for yourself. I'd love to hear what you think.
DY: It was terrific to speak with you and I look forward to hearing about your career journey as you start on that path.
BOY: Thank you so much again, I really appreciate everything.
DY: This has been UCalgary COVIDcast. To subscribe or to listen to past episodes or to get more online resources for coping with the coronavirus pandemic, visit ucalgary.ca/covidsupport. Thanks again to Brennan O'Yeung for taking the time to chat with us today. I'm Deborah Yedlin. Thanks for listening.