Can escape rooms be used for military training? This Air Force vet is studying just that at Northeastern

Karmisha Reeb adjusting her glasses.
Karmisha Reeb, an Air Force veteran and Ph.D. student at Northeastern. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Imagine you’ve been assigned to mandatory cybersecurity training at work. This means clicking through a computer program for about an hour. By the end, you haven’t retained much information about cybersecurity at all.

But what if you received your training through an escape room where you had to take the knowledge you were supposed to be learning and use it as a key to solve a problem. Sounds a lot more interesting, right? And it also means you’re actually going to absorb this information.

The latter scenario is the vision Karmisha Reeb has for the future of learning and military training. After doing an escape room one as part of a team-bonding activity during her final years in the Air Force, Reeb got hooked and decided to open her own. 
Now, she’s taking her experience running her own escape rooms, plus her 22 years in the Air Force to Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Design and Media Ph.D. program to study educational escape room design.

“I’m passionate about people learning, and I love seeing them go from not knowing something to being super confident,” Reeb said. “I think the military needs that just as much as civilians and just as much as students. Taking training that felt like something that you just need to get done, and make it come alive, that it truly has an impact.”

Right before her last deployment with the Air Force, Reeb did a team-building activity in an escape room. As she and her team worked to crack the puzzle to escape, she looked around the room and realized most of the furniture was from Ikea — something she could go out and buy on her own. 

Inspired, Reeb decided to open her own escape room while wrapping up her career with the Air Force. She worked during the days as a linguist for the Air Force, came home to spend time with her kids and then went back to work while they were in bed, putting in hours overnight to prepare the business for opening. She cut back on her gym time, instead opting to learn the programming she needed to craft a brilliant escape room.

“I almost died trying to open it because I wasn’t getting any sleep,” she said.  “I’m thankful to my father for encouraging me and my sister and brother for supporting me both in the escape room business. As I pursue these crazy things … my family has been in my corner.”

She opened her first business in late 2019 around the time she retired from the service.

“I love escape rooms and I love learning,” Reeb added. “I thought when I was doing escape rooms that it was interactive. It just set in my brain differently. And not everybody can learn just through the lecture method. We know there’s other learning methods, but it’s still mostly visual, mostly auditory. What about the kinesthetic learners? What are they doing? What are we doing for them?”

Reeb started looking into university programs and found out about Northeastern’s interdisciplinary design program in which students can shape their coursework to study different areas of media. Reeb is studying educational escape room design in hopes of getting people to see them not just as a fun weekend activity or team-building exercise, but as a way to teach new things to students and military personnel alike.

Prior to coming to Northeastern, Reeb spent over two decades in the Air Force, following in the footsteps of her granddad and stepfather who both also served. Her mother, who died in 2003, taught at learning centers on military bases and made Reeb take classes there.

It was there a young Reeb found a love of learning. She took a Chinese history course that led to her being enlisted as a Chinese linguist when she enrolled in the Air Force out of high school. She learned the language at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. (She later served as the dean of the European Language School there.)

From there, Reeb went on to work in Hawaii where she was stationed during 9/11. She worked at the National Security Agency for a few years before becoming a general intelligence officer focused on Asia. She spent time in Korea and Japan working with Air Force partners. During that time she began specializing in exercise planning.

“That’s how I really got the bug for escape rooms,” she said. “An exercise is hundreds of people. My whole job was to simulate these crazy situations to test if they’re responding in the way we want them to respond. … I just wanted to know all of the escape room things. You can learn so much about people in teams, and even your own thinking, watching other people complete your puzzles.”

In between her Air Force duties, Reeb also earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s in public administration (and raised her two children). She also did two deployments over her time in the Air Force, first to Qatar and then to Kuwait. During her second one, she decided it was time to explore something new. She officially retired from the Air Force on Oct. 31, 2019.

Shortly after, she opened her own escape room in California. When COVID-19 hit a few months later, pandemic restrictions meant Reeb was unable to keep working on her business. So she bought an escape room for sale in Houston and relocated to Texas. She still runs this business remotely from Northeastern’s Boston campus as she balances classes for her Ph.D.

Reeb is hoping to do research to prove that escape rooms are a viable training tool for the military. Luckily, she says Northeastern offers the chance to bring academic rigor to the subject, as well as the flexibility for her to explore different areas within her major.  

“It’s really great and challenging,” Reeb said of her program. “It’s challenging, because it’s always evolving. Originally, I just wanted to learn more about how to design escape rooms that maximize team building (and serve as) an informal STEM learning tool for kids, especially from under-resourced communities. However, I think I feel myself creeping back towards my military route. I’m wondering if I can apply escape room principles to help improve military training in the long term.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @erin_kayata.