Engineering an escape (room)

Valentin Gamez with a woman holding a dog in front of a Christmas tree

Not many students invite their parents to their college to see what they’ve accomplished and then lock said parents in a room. 

Of course, not many students are building escape rooms to showcase their engineering skills and inviting hundreds of people to lock themselves in and puzzle their way out either. 

Valentin Gamez, a mechanical engineering major at NAU, is that student. And it wasn’t just his parents—about 800 students participated in the 2022 Escape Room earlier this year. It was a runaway success for everyone who made it through the rooms but also for the 50 or so students who built escape room puzzles. It was a fun and unique opportunity to put their skills to work and a great way for Gamez to demonstrate how good he was at his job. Valentin Gamez

“The impact this project had on my life is another reason it is my most proud accomplishment,” he said. “For more than two years I have been applying for jobs and internships and have faced many, many rejections. With the leadership and technical experience I gained from this project, I was able to land an internship at an amazing company and even get a job offer in my field after graduation.” 

Gamez came to Flagstaff from Blythe, California; he chose NAU because it had a good engineering program and found numerous opportunities to learn and grow as an engineer and as a person. He joined clubs, found mentors, met professors who guided him and had a lot of fun as he discovered who he was. 

Now he is preparing to graduate with a hefty resume, a job, experience mentoring other students and mentors who have been with him for years. 

“The thing that has impressed me the most in the time I have known Valentin has been his thoughtfulness,” said Ryan Torres, an engineer at Gore, NAU alumnus and one of Gamez’s mentors. “Every decision he is presented with is carefully considered and each option is deliberately weighed out. His thoughtfulness and drive to not only get things right, but make them great, will aide him in becoming an excellent engineer.” 

ASME group working on the Escape Room 2022
The ASME group working on the Escape Room 2022

The 2022 Escape Room—start to finish 

Gamez was the treasurer of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), which put on the Escape Room. The club recruited about 50 engineering and applied sciences students to build escape room challenges. Gamez, who was the financial leader of the project, helped raise more than $13,000 to put on this event. Others did administrative work to ensure the three-day project would all come together. 

And it did—though not quite without a hitch. (More on that in a minute.) Hundreds of NAU students flocked to the three escape rooms, ready to solve puzzles that led to clues that eventually got them the key to the door. About 50 students from the MIT-e program at Sinagua Middle School also came; this is a magnet program for STEM students and what better way to teach engineering than to make it fun?  

In addition to all his administrative work, Gamez built two puzzles. The first was a box-matching puzzle requiring evidence boxes to be placed in the correct order on a bookshelf. When they were in the correct order, the first evidence box would open. It worked by attaching sensors to each box and sensor readers to specific places on the shelf. When all of the boxes were correctly placed, the sensors sent a signal to an Arduino, which then turned off the magnetic lock and opened the first box. (What is an Arduino?) 

His other project was a card reader that, when activated, would turn on a black light and reveal hidden invisible ink messages. 

Now about that hitch—Gamez had what we referred to as “an exciting time” when two projects broke during a group’s run-through. They had 15 minutes to find the problem and fix it before the next group came through. He and another senior, who had the most experience with electronics, jumped in. He ran through the whole project, rechecked the wires, double-checked the code and within 10 minutes diagnosed the problem—a wire that been pulled loose. The other puzzle had a loose wire as well. 

It was kind of like his own little escape room challenge.

Valentin's family at the Escape Room
Valentin’s family at the Escape Room

“It was exciting, getting to troubleshoot these projects with my friends with only 15 minutes, and it was very satisfying when we were able to find the issue and fix it,” he said. 

The whole experience, from planning to building to running the escape room, was valuable; Gamez and several others, with this on their resumes, found internships and used this to build on their capstone projects and they got people excited about engineering. But for Gamez, having his family here was the best thing about it. 

“I was really excited for my family to go through the escape room,” he said. “I do not get many chances to show my family what I have learned here at NAU as an engineer, but the escape room was perfect as they were able to experience the puzzles I built and have fun doing it.” 

His time at NAU and beyond 

Gamez joined ASME, the NAU Rocket Club, which took first place in a rocket-building competition earlier this year and helped create United Students of Applied Sciences. During his four years in ASME, he worked closely with club faculty adviser Perry Wood, an instructional laboratory coordinator in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Gamez’s work in ASME went beyond the escape room, Wood said; he helped raise money for many student events, he organized tours of the Grand Canyon Railway, Northrup Grumman and the Naval Precision Optical Interferometer to allow students to experience engineering career options, and he hosted youth robotic events with Gore engineers for the Flagstaff Festival Science.  

“Valentin is an excellent, kind, gifted leader, and I cannot wait to see what he will accomplish as a practicing mechanical engineer,” Wood said. 

Gamez also joined EPIC (Equal Partners in Inclusive Community) during his first year of college and was matched with Torres as a mentor. They met every other week during the semester, allowing Torres to check on how Gamez was doing in classes and with life generally. They worked on professional development skills, including resume writing and interview skills  

 This relationship helped get him an internship at Gore. 

Valentin and a friend with snowboards at Snowbowl
Snowboarding at Snowbowl

“The work he has done this past summer as an engineering intern at W.L. Gore & Associates has impressed me and my colleagues, and I look forward to welcoming him to Gore as a new associate in the spring,” Torres said. 

Escape Room 22 wasn’t the only way Gamez put his skills to public use. This summer, he volunteered at a “fix-it clinic” where engineers fixed people’s broken devices, instruments and other broken items. The clinic helped save people money but also kept items out of the landfill. 

In addition to internships at Gore last summer and fall, he also worked at a start-up company that aimed to reduce traffic at intersections. And—because he wasn’t busy enough—Gamez was a Peak Performance math tutor; he tutored incoming first-year students so they would be prepared for their required math courses and introduced them to other resources available at NAU. 

All of this helped him to garner attention; he won a Gold Axe award last month. And it also helped him find a job; he starts work at Gore early next year. He’s also thinking about getting a master’s degree sometime in the future after getting some industry experience.  

“I am very grateful for everything NAU has done for me,” Gamez said. “My time here at NAU has sparked a passion for engineering and furthering my education. This is important to me because before I came to NAU I felt as if I did not have anything I was passionate about.” 

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 |

NAU Communications