Portal in High School

Jimmy Newland, a high school teacher in Houston, seriously takes the cake. He took with my physics lessons and recreated them better than I could have imagined in his physics classroom.

You have to check out his blog and hear his students talking about their experiments to fully appreciate the kind of learning that can take place when students get free reign to explore and learn inside a virtual world.

Here’s a sample of a student talking about his experiment in terminal velocity.

Great job, Jimmy! I’m incredibly happy to see that Portal helped make learning physics fun for your students :)

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NASA, Portal and Physics. Oh my god.

This might be one of the coolest videos I’ve ever seen. This is what happens when you mix NASA, Portal and physics, which are basically my top three favorite things. Just watch:

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Portal in Elementary School

You may have noticed a shout-out in my most recent video to Nathan Manderfield, an elementary school teacher in California, who teaches with some of the coolest projects I’ve ever seen. Nathan’s been trying out some crazy, innovative technology in his classroom to get his students excited about being makers. And they’re even making the world a better place :)

I asked him to give us a small write up about what his students are up to. Here’s what he had to say!


My name is Nathan Manderfeld and I teach 4th and 5th grade at Monroe Elementary School in Bermuda Dunes, CA. Five years ago I started a program at our school called, “Learning on the Edge.” It is a two year program that concentrates on using technology in the classroom and project based learning. My students have done some amazing projects including becoming commissioned artists, creating and running their own small business, publishing a book, launching a movement called Twenty 4 Change, and now becoming game designers. Through all of this I continue to be amazed by what students can create when we as teachers set the stage, support them, then get out of the way! In this guest post I want to concentrate on just one of these projects: game design.

Technology can be amazing. I became aware of the game Portal and Cameron by searching Youtube looking for information on game design. I came across a Google Hang-Out that was nearly a year old. It was a hang-out sponsored by Gamers Advancing Meaningful Education. In the hang-out Cameron was featured explaining how he used Portal 2 in the classroom. I quickly was inspired and bought myself the Xbox version on Amazon. To my delight it was an older game so I got it for a steal. Playing Portal 2 was awesome and I immediately began thinking of how I could incorporate it into the game design unit I was developing. I decided to set up my Xbox in class and let students have 30 minutes each of uninterrupted time to explore the game. We had already been discussing the basic principles of game design from mechanics to the “magic circle”. We had conducted a Google Hang-Out with a game designer from San Francisco and were now playing various games and analyzing them using the vocabulary of game design. My students were very excited about playing Portal 2. We had a whole Portal 2 area set up in our room.

After playing and analyzing games it was now time for my students to make their own. I decided to use the site Gamestar Mechanic. It is an awesome site that allows students to work through a quest as they learn the different components of basic game design. At the end of the quest they make their first game. They then are allowed to do challenges to gain more “sprites” to use in building more and more advanced games. We currently have published our first games in what we call the Monroe Arcade.  My goal in the long term is to teach them about iteration, the slow process of refining a product. We have already shared our games in the Monroe Arcade with our second grade buddies and some other schools in the district our playing my students’ games.

I am also trying to expand the Portal 2 portion of the unit by having students build their own levels. After seeing Cameron on the Google Hang-Out I reached out to him and he made me some custom Portal 2 levels that teach Newton’s Laws. I plan to incorporate those lessons when we get into our Engineering unit. Project based learning is something I am passionate about. I thank Cameron for sharing his expertise with me and letting me do a guest post. If anyone is interested in knowing more or collaborating on a project feel free to contact me anytime at njmander *at* gmail *dot* com.

Building the Monroe Arcade

Exploring Aperture Laboratories

Building the Monroe Arcade

Building the Monroe Arcade

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girls and portal 2

I love hearing from innovative teachers who are exploring new ways of taking advantage of video games in their classrooms. I’ve recently been speaking with Megan Pusey, a science teacher with a penchant for gaming at an all girls secondary school in Australia.

Megan’s students finished a physics unit with Portal 2 last month. Girls and video games aren’t traditionally associated together, so who better to help us understand the classroom dynamic between girls and games than Megan. Check out what she has to say about girls, games and her classroom in our interview below. Even if you aren’t a teacher at an all girls school, Megan has some great insights for anyone preparing to teach with games.


MP: I’m a science teacher at an all-girls school in Australia and last year I tried using Portal 2 in one of my physics classes to see what would happen. I am also a gamer at heart and was inspired to combine my two loves of gaming and teaching by blogs such as Physics with Portals (and the fact that Steam for Schools was offering copies of Portal 2 for free). During 2013 I taught three classes of 25 students and ran about 6-7 sessions using Portal 2 embedded into the regular physics program. This is the last compulsory science course for these students (15-16 years old).

CP: Do they love it? Hate it? Feel hesitant but come around? Avoid it at all costs? Are there any interesting stories that came out of your Portal unit?

The girls had mixed reactions to playing video games in class. Some students were very excited about it and only one or two students had played Portal before.  A majority of students did not see themselves as ‘gamers’ and were resistant to the idea and reluctant to try. They saw video games as ‘not their thing’, they were scared they ‘wouldn’t be good at it’ and it was ‘something their brother plays’, not them.

I remember having a conversation with one student who said in disbelief “You’re forcing us to play video games in class?” to which I replied “Yes! Give the first level a go and if you don’t like it you can stop playing.” The student didn’t stop playing.  Many of the reluctant students really came around to the idea after they gave Portal 2 a go and realised it was not what they thought video games were like. It challenged the girls and required them to use their brain. Some students even bought a copy of Portal for their own personal use after enjoying it in class. A few students didn’t enjoy Portal 2, they were very resistant to trying it. Most of the students in this category have chosen not to continue studying Science this year.

Were you surprised by any of their reactions?

I was surprised by how much conversation Portal 2 created amongst the students. Many would work together in teams to solve the puzzle rooms. If anyone was stumped by a puzzle they would ask other students who had already completed the puzzle for help. Many students were frustrated when they kept failing but there was a sense of accomplishment when they finally conquered the puzzle.

Did the girls learn more with Portal than they would have otherwise?

I’m not sure if the students learnt more using Portal 2 than they would have otherwise. Learning is extremely difficult to measure. My goal for using Portal 2 was to show students that Physics can be applied in unexpected places (such as video games) and to keep the topic interesting and engaging. I used the Portal 2 lessons as more of a lab/practical lesson where students would take measurements within the game and apply their knowledge of concepts they had learnt in class. Portal 2 also allows students to simulate actions they can’t do that in real life (e.g. jumping from a height to measure acceleration due to gravity).

How did your co-workers react?

Many of my co-workers were intrigued by what I was doing. They had not used commercial video games in the classroom before. Some of my colleagues are still unsure of video games and have no inclination to use them in class. Most of my other colleagues have an open attitude would be willing to explore the use of video games in class. However, they all said they would need some training first to learn more about video games in order to use them effectively in class.

Did your thinking towards video games in the classroom change based on your experience?

Last year was my first time using video games for the purpose of teaching and my thinking towards it has definitely changed. I was experimenting a lot to see what worked and what didn’t and one big discovery was that to get the learning goals across I had to supplement the game with other activities. These activities stimulated the students’ thinking about the physics concepts, otherwise they just saw it as ‘playing games’.

Any advice to teachers who are considering using games in class?

Be familiar with the game your self

Spend some time playing the game you want to use. That way you can help students if they ask questions or get stuck. You will also quickly discover if the game is suitable for your purposes.

Give students time to become familiar with the game

I had students who had never played a first person shooter before, so using the keyboard and mouse at the same time to move around was very alien to them. They needed time to get used to the game and how it works before learning could take place.

Direct the learning

You can’t expect students to achieve your intended learning goals by just playing a video game without any teacher support. Students aren’t going to notice things like the conservation of energy unless you help them see it.


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Newton’s Laws

Finally! After months of waiting, I’ve finally put together another PwP video. Check out the video below for a few simple demonstrations of Newton’s laws of motion in the Puzzle Maker.

Hey Nathan! Don’t forget, you owe me a blog post. Tell us about your class!

How I determined that propulsion gel accelerates you to 12 m/s2:

First, I measured the time it took to reach top speed on propulsion gel.


Breaking the video down frame-by-frame, you see that you reach a top speed of 800 u/s in ~1.3s. Remembering that acceleration = (change in velocity) / time lets us calculate acceleration in game units. Then, I convert game units to meters by using 128 u = 1 panel and 1 panel = 2.4 m (described in depth here) to find that the acceleration due to propulsion gel is 12 m/s2.

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