Imperial College London

Learning made fun with Breaking Bag


Breaking Bag rucksack with science puzzles

A staff-student collaboration at Imperial has developed an engaging way for GCSE maths and science students to consolidate their learning.

‘Breaking Bag’ is a challenge in a backpack based on the escape room model, where participants solve a series of puzzles, building up to a final challenge. On solving a puzzle the students obtain a code, which they use to unlock the combination lock of a new compartment of the bag to access the next task.

The bag contains three main puzzles covering key concepts in biology, chemistry and physics, brought to life through topics like dog genetics, PH testing and refraction. Participants also gain experience of thinking under pressure, communicating effectively and working as a team.

Giskin Day, Matthew Douthwait and a student demonstrating he puzzles in the bag
Giskin Day, Matthew Douthwaite and Kam Pou Ha demonstrate Breaking Bag at Education Day 2018

The project is the result of a staff-student partnership between Principal Teaching Fellow Giskin Day and several students including PhD student Matthew Douthwaite, plus an alumnus.

Matthew, a PhD student from the College’s Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in High Performance Embedded and Distributed Systems (HiPEDS), said: “We believe that because the challenge is fun and memorable and completing it requires students to be actively engaged, the experience will stay with them for far longer than a typical revision session.

“The puzzles are mostly linked to everyday scenarios and objects, which can allow the students to relate what they are learning to the real world. When coupled with a follow-up discussion and side activities like designing their own puzzles, we believe students will gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the topics being taught.”

The bag is designed for four to five participants working together at one time, keeping group numbers small to encourage teamwork while ensuring each student can have an input in solving the puzzles.

A family-friendly version of the bag will be available for the public to play with at this year’s Imperial Festival (28-29 April). 

‘Something completely new and different’

The team who developed the bag includes Imperial alumnus Beth Slater, a maths teacher at Pool Hayes Academy in Willenhall in the West Midlands. Beth tested the prototype bag with students and staff in the science department at the school.

She said: “We tried it with a range of Year 10 and 11 students to help them prepare for their GCSEs and even though they struggled with some of the content they were incredibly engaged in the game and enjoyed it much more than regular lessons.

“We received amazing feedback from the staff. Some tried it themselves and others just loved the idea of doing something completely new and different in the classroom.”

Developing an idea

Matthew and his colleagues developed the idea for an escape room-style challenge in a bag during a workshop run by Giskin at Imperial. Four teams of students, each with a mentor, were tasked with designing an escape room, with a budget of £150 per team.

Matthew said: “The topic of GCSE science and maths came from thinking about how to make an escape room both educational and appealing to a wide audience.”

This project has received Learning and Teaching Strategy seed funds and been supported by the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication

Breaking Bag at Imperial Festival 2018: Have a go!

A family-friendly version of the bag will be available to play on a first-come first-served basis at this year’s Imperial Festival, taking place at the South Kensington Campus on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 April. 

Now in its seventh year, Imperial Festival is the College’s flagship annual event celebrating the best science, engineering and creativity from Imperial. Free and open to the public, the Festival comprises hundreds of attractions, demonstrations, interactive exhibits, talks, tours, workshops and performances put on by more than 500 exhibitors from our academic and student community. To attend, register online.


Images credit: Fergus Burnett


Jennie Rawling

Jennie Rawling
Communications and Public Affairs

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Education, Strategy-educational-experience, Imperial-Festival, Outreach
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