is portal 2 a useful classroom tool? part 1

This is the first in a many part series about the utility of Portal 2 in the classroom. We recently finished our first semester learning physics with Portal 2. My students spent about 10 class periods building and analyzing levels they made within the Puzzle Maker. They experimented with physics topics like displacement, projectile motion, conservation of energy, work and forces. My students not only built levels, but also shared and discussed them and later used them as the basis for the essay portion of their exam. But was it worth it?

Yes.

Ok. “Yes,” may be a vague answer. But this is a complicated subject. Overall, I think Portal 2 is an awesome teaching tool and I would absolutely use it again. But there are drawbacks as well. Let’s break this down into specific categories.

Student Interest

Teaching, especially in high needs schools, is essentially a two-part process: getting interest and spreading content knowledge. Though a teacher may have a deep fascination with a subject, their enthusiasm isn’t automatically transferred to students as soon as they walk in the room. For motivated or good students (in the sense that they know how to do well in school), interest level isn’t a big deal because they already want to learn and get a good grade. But for students on the fence, like many of the students in high needs schools, learning almost comes as a side effect of wanting to please the teacher or having interest in the subject.

In that sense, Portal 2 is easily a success.

Portal 2 helped my students buy in to class. At the very least, using it made my students realize that I’m really trying to make learning fun for them, that I’m trying to reach them in a way they understand. It helped me get students on my side. They liked class because class was something different and fun. Portal 2 helped me grab their attention while I started the long, arduous process of reshaping their minds into the minds of physicists.

And my students liked coming to class. I saw a big spike in interest in physics as my students told their friends about what was going on in class. I had students from every grade level (and even some elementary aged siblings!) bug me about taking physics later so they could play Portal 2 in class. Students asked if I could help their other teachers implement video games in different classes. My poor chemistry students were the saddest. They were taking a class with me, the video game teacher, but weren’t playing video games (speaking of which, if any of you folks know of any chemistry related video games, please let me know!).

And while my students were working with Portal 2, I had zero classroom management issues. Not one. Every student spent 100% of their time and energy focused on the game. Even the notoriously loud and obnoxious students were actively engaged for the entirety of each lesson. Students listened to every instruction, helped me work through a few technical difficulties and produced high quality work. In many occasions, students took on tutorial roles without me even asking. They worked until the end of class and, in fact, often complained that I cut them off too early (usually to have a post lab discussion). It’s hard to describe how satisfying it is to see every student engaged for every minute of the lesson. Of course, that level of engagement did not completely transfer over to “normal” class, but still, it clearly hooked their attention.

It’s obvious that Portal 2 raised student interest in physics. But did it actually work as advertised? Student results and data are next.

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7 thoughts on “is portal 2 a useful classroom tool? part 1

  1. […] is portal 2 a useful classroom tool? part 1 […]

  2. Elisabeth says:

    You could try talking to Penn State’s Educational Gaming Commons about whether or not they’re ready to spread ChemBlaster down to the high-school level. http://gaming.psu.edu/games/chemblaster/ You could also try using a call-and-response technique (choral response) or response cards (either writing answers on small whiteboards, or having pre-printed cards) in your non-game class to try to increase motivation (research: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1286263/ Choral response example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKkR0EpvrcM ).

    • cameronwp says:

      Hi Elisabeth! Thanks for the heads up. You don’t see many chemistry games. I like Chem Blaster. I’ll have to give it a try in my own classes. I can see it being a fun review game.

      And thanks for the links about motivation. I’ve seen some work done with choral responses before. Seems pretty interesting.

  3. Todd Barchok says:

    You could also look into http://www.spacechemthegame.com for chemistry based games, though it’s hard to say if it’s the sort of thing you can use.

    • cameronwp says:

      I like SpaceChem, but I have a hard time seeing its uses in class. It’s more of a programming game. And not to mention it’s insanely difficult (I hate to admit that I started looking online for help beginning with the 2nd level).

  4. Ste says:

    Zachtronics spacechem is an excellent game with chemisty.

    • SpaceChem is an interesting game, though I’m hesitant to use it in class. The learning curve is too steep, and it’s more of a programming game than chemistry.

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