Hack the System – Algebra 1

On Monday, I posted this tweet:

It was the culmination of several weeks of in secret stressing out at home and during prep periods to try to figure out how to make something awesome and fantastic happen – an Algebra 1 escape room!

I’ve done several escape rooms out in the real world – for the uninitiated, an escape room is basically what it sounds like: a room that you have to escape. In the publicly available ones, you sign up with a group, get locked in a room, and have an hour to find hidden clues, break codes, and solve riddles to unlock boxes, find more clues, and hopefully eventually find the room key to get you out!

In the education world, I had seen a few teachers creating these on their own, plus seen the officially packaged Breakout EDU kits. These kits are pretty expensive, so I had decided that I was going to create a breakout experience on my own just using locks and boxes I already had or that friends and family could provide me. I put a call out on facebook for extra locks or boxes that were lockable – pretty much everyone was like “wow, that sounds awesome but I don’t have anything like that” or “have you seen the Breakout EDU kits?” which yes, I had, but I don’t really have $150 to spare…and then the amazing Megan, one of our district lead teachers, commented and said “hey, the district owns some of the Breakout EDU kits that you can check out!” SCORE!

The Breakout EDU kits are pretty cool, and they even have pre-made escape scenarios for a few subject areas that you can download and then set up using the supplies in the kit. However, I am a perfectionist and I wanted the escape room to be exactly how I wanted it – I wanted LOTS of locks, with all of the combos only coming from solutions to math problems, and I wanted my entire classes to be solving problems to be able to escape. So, I ended up combining the Breakout EDU kit with a bunch of locks I purchased at Dollar Tree, and a few locks my mom had lying around, plus several other lockable containers and tricks that I came up with around my house.

So here we go, a breakdown of the breakout:

I split my classes into 5 teams. We have a small school and small classes, so in some of my classes this involved “teams” of a single student, and in some classes this involved partners. If you had bigger classes you may either need to come up with more teams or have bigger groups, and if you had bigger groups you would probably want to shorten the time limit. I gave my classes the entire class period – probably about 40 minutes once I gave all of the instructions and handed out supplies, and my 4th and 5th hours were able to escape right towards the end of class – close enough that THEY were nervous about not getting in the final box, but not quite close enough that /I/ was nervous about it.

The content in question is systems of linear equations. This activity acted as their review before their final for this term, so we had already learned all solution methods and practiced a bunch.

The first system on every team’s “Hack the System” sheet was set up to solve by graphing. They had to graph it on this crudely drawn map of our classroom that I made. The solution would lead them to the spot in the classroom where the set of puzzles they would need to solve was located.

Then, each team had 4 more systems to solve to help them decode their puzzles.

Team A

This team had these instructions before the 4th system: If the x-value of this solution matches the x-value of another solution, use the first 3 x-values to unlock the lock. If the y-value matches another, use those. If neither match, combine x and y values from each solution into a two digit number.

One of the x-values matched the x-value of their final solution, so the 3 x-values unlocked the green bike lock chain around the notebook.

On the first page of the notebook is written the combo to the lock on the small black box, which contains a key. This key unlocks one of the 6 locks on the final box.

Team B

I think this one was my stroke of genius. About a year ago, I shattered the screen on my iphone 5s. It was old enough that I just got a new phone rather than paying to fix the screen, but I kept the old one. Because I keep everything. And because I didn’t really know how to get rid of it. I packed up this phone with its shattered screen and moved it with me to my new house this summer. And as I was planning this activity, I remembered it! It still works, it just doesn’t have service anymore and the screen is shattered. So I wiped the memory, put a single note in the Notes app that was two cryptic words, and reset the passcode to be the solutions to this team’s set of 4 systems – xyxyxyxy. I set the lockscreen background so it says “unlock me and open Notes”. They opened the notes app and read the cryptic words which are the code to unlock the alpha-lock on the main box!

When my kids opened the iphone box to find out there was actually an iphone in it they were like “this is part of this? NO WAY! DO THE SOLUTIONS UNLOCK THE PASSCODE? THIS IS SO COOL!” Which made me really proud of this genius idea. You could make it work with any device that involves a password, really.

Team C

This team had an alumni cooler from my university (shoutout University of Northern Iowa Alumni Association!) The cooler has two pockets, both of which have double zippers – which means you can loop a lock through the two zippers and then it can’t be unzipped without unlocking!

This team had the same instructions before their final system as team A: If the x-value of this solution matches the x-value of another solution, use the first 3 x-values to unlock the lock. If the y-value matches another, use those. If neither match, combine x and y values from each solution into a two digit number.

It ended up that the final solution matched none of the other values, so they had to combine their values into two digit numbers (for example, (3,1) would become 31) that formed the combination. They had to just guess which lock on the cooler this opened. In that compartment, there was a seemingly blank piece of paper and a pen – but not just any pen…a pen with a blacklight on the end! The paper actually had the combination for the other lock written on it! When they unlocked that compartment, there was a key to one of the locks on the main box. Or, when a student in 4th period accidentally broke that lock when messing with it, I taped the combination to an extra lock I had inside that compartment.

Team D

This team had an actual lockbox that my dad had lying around from when he was the treasurer of my elementary school’s Parent Teacher Organization. It has a 4 digit combo lock on it from the Breakout EDU kit.

Before their final system, they had these instructions: Find the solution that’s x or y value matches that of this solution. Use BOTH values in that solution to unlock the lock, but if the x values matched, use ONLY x values from other solutions, and if the y values matched, use ONLY y values from other solutions.

The y value of that system matched that of the first system they solved, so the combo was x1 y1 y2 y3. Inside the lockbox was a ziploc bag with pieces of paper, and a makeup bag I owned with a double zipper that was locked by a combo lock. The pieces of paper are actually a puzzle, and the combo to that lock is written out in cursive words on the completed puzzle. Inside the makeup bag is a key to one of the main locks. The puzzle ended up being harder than I planned for it to be because it turns out that a lot of my students aren’t super comfortable reading cursive! So they didn’t know what the words said!

Team E

Team E was slightly different from the rest – I was out of containers that I could put a lock on, unless I wanted to bring my whole suitcase to school, which I really did not. So I decided that for the last two keys to the main box, I would hide them places in the classroom.

This team had these instructions before their final system: Discard the solution that has a matching x or y value with this one. The other two solutions correspond to map locations where keys are hidden – find them!

The x value of this system matched the x value of the other one, so the remaining two solutions had coordinates that they then plotted on our classroom map to give them a spot to search for the keys! I hid one of the keys in my classroom pencil cup, and the other in the holder for my SMART board pens.

This team’s setup would be a good way to add extra groups to your breakout activity – just hide extra keys!

If you needed to make the activity work for more students, I had the thought that some of the puzzles could be dead ends – lead to empty boxes, etc, or keys that don’t actually fit any of the locks. I really enjoyed the fact that every single group had to solve their systems in order to unlock the final box. Oh, and the final box had homemade chocolate chip cookies in it!

This took a LOT of planning to pull off, and I had to check and double check that I had written every system correctly to have the solutions that corresponded to the combinations. Some of these locks were reprogrammable, but some aren’t so I had to make it work with the combinations they already had. I was also glad that all of my students remembered how to unlock combination locks – our building doesn’t have lockers, so they don’t have to do it every day. If your building DOES have lockers, and there are spare lockers you could use and know the combos to, that could be a great place to put more clues!

It was really rewarding to watch my kids get so invested in opening that final box. I really loved this activity and I’m glad I put all the work in to make it happen! I really want to try to figure out a piece of content in Algebra 2 that will let that class do an escape room this year, because they were super sad when they came to class and saw all the lockboxes around the room and then got told that they weren’t for them 😦

Here are videos of my 4th and 5th periods getting the box open! Their excitement was so conagious!



I would share the activities I used for this room, but unfortunately they would be zero help to you since we don’t have the same locks! If you have questions about the way I set up the systems I can share some problems and solutions with you if you leave a comment or tweet me with your email address!


Author: missmastalio

Math teacher at an alternative high school. Living the best life.

6 thoughts on “Hack the System – Algebra 1”

  1. This sounds like it was a lot of fun and I would love to see some of the problems you used, if you wouldn’t mind sharing. I love the way you are so creative with your teaching.


  2. I received a grant this year which allowed me to purchase various boxes and locks. I would really appreciate if I could have copies of the equations that you used along with their solutions. Thanks for the great idea! mkeepes@cusd20.net


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