Campus Technology

An Escape Room for Building Digital Skills

Northampton community college recently won an Instructional Technology Council award for 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 smart bed. We 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. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

college students basement apartment living area 


Campus Technology: Could you describe what the Smart Apartment Learning Lab is and what it's all about?

Beth Ritter-Guth: 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, it started with finding a space: We found a great space at the Fowler Family Center at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the basement of an old Bethlehem Steel building.

And so we built the Smart Apartment. The most expensive thing we have in the room is a smart refrigerator. And it goes down to the least expensive thing, we have a nanny cam in our picture frame. We built an escape room in this Smart Apartment, 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? And that unlocks the first clue. People are surprised by all the different things that have cameras, and how you really can put a camera in anything now.

CT: I was going to 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 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, how's that deadliest thing in that room? Well, here's how. All of the devices have some kind of app that runs them. And so you use your phone app, and you have it start up the diffuser and it 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?

If you think about healthcare, and you think about preparing nurses — which community colleges often do — if you're a nurse in a drug treatment facility, now we have smart toilets that can analyze everything. As a nurse, how would you know if that were hacked? We have smart beds to make sure people are rolling around and things like that. How would you know if that were hacked? And what would you do if it were hacked? If our computer gets hacked, our tendency is to turn it off or unplug it or shut it down. 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 your IT department. For the forensic team to do their job, you have to leave it in the state you found it when it was hacked. As a nurse, how would you know that?

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

Ritter-Guth: Yep. As community college educators, we teach people how to build these things. We teach them how to sell these things. We teach them how to install them. We're preparing the workforce. So they need to know how to think critically, because the technology will change.

CT: Did you have learning outcomes in mind when designing the room?

Ritter-Guth: We wanted to build the room and then work with faculty to meet their course learning outcomes. The course learning outcomes for Criminal Justice will be different from Nursing 101. So the instructional designers and I work with faculty to meet their instructional goals.

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, and we've done outreach to the schools. The problem was, as soon as we were ready to cut the ribbon and launch the room — March of 2020. So then the room sat for two years, and because of where it is and the age of the building, we couldn't have more than six people in the room. We're just now getting back to full capacity. And even then, we're being cautious, because you have to touch things for the escape room. Like the smart fridge. You’re thinking, why would anybody hack a smart fridge? A smart fridge has cameras on the inside, which are great if you want to see what your elderly mother might need from the store. But it also has cameras on the outside. So if you want to stalk your neighbor, you can hack those cameras and spy into people's very intimate lives in their kitchen.

college students basement apartment sleeping area 


CT: You have so many hackable devices in the room. Did you need to work with IT to make sure that those technologies are isolated or can't be used to hack into the campus network?

Ritter-Guth: When I envisioned the room, I built into the plan that it would have its own network. Because the goal, going into the pandemic, was to work with schools internationally — so that they can hack our room, and then we have to solve it. The only way to teach hacking is to teach people how to hack, and then how to know that something has been hacked, and then how to fix it. So IT helped us create that room; they were very helpful. At the time, they were very concerned that they would not be held accountable if the college got hacked because of that room. But you can hack everything in that room and it will not touch the college.

I always say our purpose is to teach “build, break, defend.” You can't learn to defend something if it hasn't been broken. It's just like learning about fire: You don't learn how to put out a grease fire by just talking about it. So it's very much the same principle. We want to give students a space to learn that.

CT: 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 the room sat for two years, and refrigerators have gotten better. The one we have is a great fridge — it was $4,000 when we bought it. That fridge is now $2,000 and better fridges have come out. 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 we'll look at the technology again at the end of this coming year. We constantly have to be on top of it, to make sure that the technology is still relevant. And you have to upgrade the apps all the time too.

CT: Could you talk about how you create an escape room puzzle?

Ritter-Guth: I actually got certified to make escape rooms, so I went to training. But the easiest way — 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? In our particular escape room, you have to get into a safe, which is a biometric safe that's tied only to my fingerprint. It has a backup key, and that's what you have to find. Where are you going to put the key that unlocks the safe? Then how are you going to find where that key is? So you start backwards, and then you build your puzzles to the front side.

The first thing we do is show you a welcome video that talks about the room and says there's nothing on the ceiling, nothing behind the paintings, nothing underneath the furniture, underneath the couches. You have 30 minutes to work on the puzzles. We kind of lock you in there and then we're actually watching you on one of the many cameras — usually on the phone camera. And we do give hints. Professional escape rooms, they want more money from you — it's to their advantage for you not to solve it, so you have to pay the 20 bucks again and keep going back until you solve it. It's not in our advantage to not have successful students. So we give them hints, we give them time.

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

Ritter-Guth: That is always my goal — to have the students making them. The more that we can put in the hands of students, the better the experience is, because they are going to come up with infinitely better connections to the world in which they live. So that is one of my goals, hopefully for next year, to get a group of students to come in and build their own escape room. A good way to do that at the college level is to work through clubs. 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. We’ll be there with them to help with the technology, but they get to make it and 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.

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

Ritter-Guth: Think big and bold and brave, always. I always have at the front of my mind, what are students going to need to know 20 years from now? 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 really being resilient to change because things change so rapidly in their world.

We're giving students opportunities to put hands on technology that they may not be able to afford. Our students can't afford a $4,000 fridge, so 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. Elon Musk is going to need employees who know how to do this stuff. Virgin Galactic, they're going to need employees who know how to build, break and defend the things that go on these ships that take people out to outer space. And so, I'm so thankful that Northampton has allowed me to be a visionary. Not a lot of schools can afford to do that. I've been very thankful that Northampton has supported me.

Be bold and brave. 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. Don't be afraid to be different.


Hear the full interview with Beth Ritter-Guth in season 3, episode 7 of the Campus Technology Insider podcast: “How an Escape Room Is Building Students’ Digital Skills at Northampton Community College.” Find it at or on all the major podcast platforms.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Spaces4Learning.