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Annie Sullivan teacher Cassie Duffy talks about the "breakout box" activity she did with her class Wednesday, April 18, in Sioux Falls. Briana Sanchez / Argus Leader
The boxes can be pretty intimidating at first.
The mysterious contents inside are protected not only by the hard, black exterior, but also by three separate padlocks.
And the only way to solve them? Math.
Cassie Duffy, a second grade teacher at Anne Sullivan Elementary in Sioux Falls, first discovered the "breakout boxes" during an educators conference a few years ago. She then received a grant from the Sioux Falls Education Foundation to purchase 16 of the boxes from Breakout EDU, a company specializing in immersive education products.
On Wednesday, Duffy let her students "breakout" of the boxes on their own for the first time in an activity much like the increasingly popular escape rooms where people are asked to solve a series of puzzles to "escape."
Duffy's students didn't have to escape from anything, but they were trying to help their friends "Odd Todd" and "Even Steven" open the boxes by solving a series of math questions about odd and even numbers.
The goal is to keep students engaged.
"Kids need to have a reason to come to school and enjoy school," she said.
And if the energy in her classroom Wednesday morning was any indicator, the breakout boxes are working.
Once the 40-minute timer started, students were frantic trying to solve the puzzles, and they were largely on their own. Each group had two "hint cards" they could use to ask Duffy for help, but once they were used, that's it.
Some groups dug right in to solving the questions. Others fiddled with the locks and tried to crack the code their own way.
For 8-year-old Garwolyn Wreh, the real magic happened once she and her three teammates began helping each other out.
"At first we weren't taking turns, but in the end it turned out good," Wreh said.
A few desks over, one team was certain they'd solved the puzzle, but when they went to unlock the padlock, it didn't work. Thankfully, it didn't take long to realize they'd been holding the lock upside down.
Annie Sullivan student Naomi Guddata celebrates with her team after they solved their "breakout box" during class Wednesday, April 18, in Sioux Falls. (Photo: Briana Sanchez / Argus Leader)
The hardest part of the activity for 7-year-old Sajal Magnar was when his team had to use clues to find a key for their third lock in another part of the classroom. But he was happy to report, they found it.
"We didn't even use a hint card," Magnar said.
The greatest excitement in the room came when students finally opened their boxes. Hands surged to the sky in victory celebrations, and kids were eager to show Duffy – and their classmates – what they'd done.
For Duffy, one of the highlights was seeing all of her students focused and engaged in the task at hand. She said it can be hard for a teacher to step back, especially when kids are having a tough time with a problem. But ultimately it's for the best.
"We want them to have a little bit of struggle," Duffy said. "But we also want them to feel success in the end."