Monthly Archives: February 2013

student projects part 2

Here’s another level a student created as part of my fall semester exam.

Though this level may not have been the most exciting, it still clearly demonstrates three different aspects of mechanics. Along with her excellent paper, this student earned a 100 for this part of her exam.

If you’re asking yourself why this level doesn’t seem more exciting, I completely understand. This level, like most of the others I received, is fairly plain. The demonstrations are obvious and appear piecemeal. I wish my students had created astounding, complex masterpieces with demonstrations that link multiple aspects of physics with possibly some puzzles thrown in. But, as anyone who has ever tried to make a level could tell you, making complicated levels is difficult. Even my simple demonstration of a physics problem took me a few hours of tinkering to work correctly. Around exam time, it’d be unreasonable of me to expect my students to spend hours fiddling with the Puzzle Maker especially when most of my students don’t have access to Portal 2 outside of school. So, I required very little of my students with the level building portion of their exam grade and instead focused on their descriptions (there was a classic multiple choice component to the exam too, in case you were wondering).

And, in case you haven’t looked recently, the media mentions page has been updated. I just added the IT Babble podcast at the top. They’ve got a quick segment about Portal 2 and education. While I don’t get a mention by name, they do a decent job of describing of how my kids have been using Portal 2 (starting with a bad description around 13:00 but a much better description coming in around 19:25). Being discussed on a podcast is definitely a pretty cool first, though hearing the way they describe what I’ve been doing (especially around 15:00 in the podcast) is probably a good impetus to make a few quick introductory videos about everything Portal 2 and education for the general public.

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#scigames session, tweet for tweet

Did you happen to miss our #scigames session at ScienceOnline? Never fear, check out this great Storify by Jessica Rohde to get a glimpse of all the awesome ideas thrown around.

And while you’re perusing the twitterverse (where you should be following me!), you’ve got to see some of the amazing artwork from our session:

Scribing 1

Scribing 2

Science with Portals! – this is my laptop’s new background 🙂

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is portal 2 a useful teaching tool? part 2

If you missed it, make sure you check out the first part in this series on Portal 2’s classroom impact: Student Interest.

Let’s talk Portal 2 from the teacher’s perspective. As a physics teacher, can I recommend Portal 2 to other teachers? Did I enjoy teaching with Portal 2?

Once again, the short answer is yes. Teaching with Portal 2 was awesome. But, of course, there are a few caveats. Like any other tool, it has advantages and drawbacks.


Teaching with technology is hard. Any teacher endeavoring to teach with a complex game like Portal 2 should expect to run into some significant technological hurdles. Installation in and of itself almost proved insurmountable for me. Not only did I need access to the right computer hardware, I had to request special modifications to my school’s network for Steam. In fact, I pressed the administration at my previous school for the entire 2011-2012 school year and still failed to ever install Portal on a single computer in the school. While the administration was more than helpful, we ran into a tangled bureaucratic mess in the district office when we requested that network ports be opened for Steam.

It wasn’t until I started working at my current position in a charter school, where we have much more control over our resources, that all of the technological pieces fell into place.

After getting Portal 2 installed, I still ran into problems. There was the issue of figuring out a fast way of installing it on 30 laptops using the least bandwidth possible (solved using a thumbdrive and two 90 minute planning periods of furious work). Then, on the first day of Portal 2 labs, my students ran into the NO STEAM issue, which I only knew how to solve because I happened to have seen the same error a few days earlier on my own computer.

Then there were the more mundane problems. Mice occasionally didn’t work. Steam wouldn’t open sometimes. Students claimed their levels periodically disappeared (they didn’t actually disappear). Random crashes. Laptops froze. Students sometimes didn’t know what they were doing and messed things up. All of the litany of issues that can occur when you’re running a complex game showed up. In the early days of Portal 2 labs, I spent almost as much time troubleshooting as I did actually teaching physics.


I can’t understate how much fun it is to give students a sandbox world that follows the laws of physics. I felt, and I think my students would agree, that the freedom that Portal 2 affords arguably makes it one of the most important developments in the physics classroom. The freedom of the Puzzle Maker for physics students is akin to the freedom of a pen and a pad of paper for English students. They have agency and ability to mold a world to their specifications, analyze it, share it and ultimately learn in a way that no other tool can match. I love how quickly students can take a level from conception to playtesting in just a few minutes and then produce a data set by the end of class. It’s like being able to set my students loose in the Matrix for a class period.

So, yes, Portal 2 is awesome for educators. Just be prepared to solve some tech problems.

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ScienceOnline Wrap Up

I had a really great time at ScienceOnline! I enjoyed meeting everybody and having some fantastic discussions, especially at the #scigames session 🙂

I want to give a shout out to Melanie Stegman’s excellent website, the Science Game Center, where you can play and review some really innovative educational games. It’s worth checking out!

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ScienceOnline 2013!

Just a reminder, I’ll be presenting tomorrow morning with Erik Martin on games in education at ScienceOnline 2013! If you’re here in Raleigh, I hope you stop by room 7A tomorrow morning at 10:30 to join in the conversation about the place of videogames in the classroom. Expect to see a live demo of the Puzzle Maker and a few student levels showcased.

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