Two years ago Paul Kwiat, a prominent physics professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, was on a trip in Switzerland when he first discovered the new "escape room" phenomena. Skeptical initially, he decided to give it a try given its exceptionally high ratings on Trip Advisor. After 15 escape room experiences, dozens of undergraduate researchers testing puzzles and riddles, and a beta test with volunteers, Paul is now the director of LabEscape, the first ever science-based escape room attraction in downtown Urbana.
What sparked this imaginative and creative idea was that chance visit in Switzerland and many years of experience engaging students with demonstrations and promoting the understanding of science in our daily lives. Paul has a passion for science outreach to all people of the community, not just scientists, and this escape room is a direct outcome of that. The LabEscape experience is meant for all “agents” over the age of 12: families, colleagues, and friends. No science knowledge is required, and a diverse array of perspectives is encouraged in order to solve the puzzles efficiently. Sometimes, the best LabEscape agents have close to no science experience at all. The record for the fastest escape is currently held by a French high school teacher and his family, yet a group of MIT scientists made it out with just 20 seconds to spare. This versatility in the puzzles ensures that everyone, regardless of background and previous knowledge, will have a meaningful and rewarding experience at LabEscape. Paul adds that the only pre-requisite before entering LabEscape is yourself; everything you’ll need to know is discovered once inside the room.
The storyline behind LabEscape is about Professor S., a quantum computing professor who is MIA. Her secret laboratory has recently been discovered, but other investigating agents have entered and disappeared as well. It’s up to the group of agents to discover the status of her research as well as solve the mystery of her disappearance. All the puzzles or riddles are based on physics phenomena in order to reveal codes to the agents. The puzzles highlight the aesthetically and theatrically beautiful natural world, while requiring curiosity, communication, and collaboration amongst the agents.
Paul’s vision for the LabEscape is to provide a fun recreational activity for groups while encouraging people to not fear science, but to value and appreciate it. He finds this especially important to encourage in this country, where even now scientific thinking is questioned and discredited. The experience fosters team-building and an active, hands-on experience. Instead of sitting back for a movie, the participants are creating their own mystery show, in which nothing happens unless they are actively doing it. As a byproduct of this project, Paul hopes to bring new life into the Lincoln Square Mall and to foster a family learning experience in the space. This community goal is also helped by the addition of Spark Museum + Play Café in the mall.
While just one storyline is currently available, Paul hopes to have a sequel storyline ready by mid to late summer. Free ten minute prequels are available thanks Urbana First Fridays. The next one will be July 7th, available from 5-8 p.m. Because LabEscape is a non-profit, they are open by appointment only, which can be scheduled here. Price is $15 for students and $20 for others, which helps cover the cost of renting space in the mall and paying student workers.