Category Archives: News/Updates

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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Games and Learning (and LearnBIG)

I’m very proud to have an article about the state of educational games published a few weeks at gamesandlearning.org! G+L is a fantastic outlet for anyone interested in educational games.

For those of you who don’t know, I stopped teaching at the end of last school year to pursue a career in educational technology. Over the summer, I began working for a Seattle startup called LearnBIG.com, where we’ve taken on the challenge of cataloging and organizing all of the amazing educational technology available online.

Don’t worry, I’m still a huge proponent of teaching physics with Portal 2. There are many, many more ways to integrate teaching and learning with Portal 2. I’m just getting started 🙂

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Interview with Daniel V part 2

I realize this is a bit late, but here’s the second half of the interview with Daniel about the place of video games in school. Interesting young man! Looking forward to seeing what he decides to do next!

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What advice would you give to other students who want their teachers to start using Portal 2 or other video games?

Make sure you know ahead of time what you want to say to your teacher and the tech department. When you go talk to them, try to have a demonstration ready if you have one or both of the games on your laptop. If you don’t have them, then you can always pull up some of the demonstration videos on this blog and show them the Teach With Portals website; you can also go to the Universe Sandbox website to show them the screenshots and videos there.

I’ve already talked about a lot of the advantages of using these programs in the first part of this interview, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but the most important thing is that these programs will allow the teacher to easily demonstrate concepts that could not be replicated on something like a blackboard, and the students will receive the benefit of dynamic, interactive examples that actually display the things they’re learning. Having your teacher tell you that the planets would all move in lines tangential to their orbits if the Sun disappeared is one thing; having your teacher open a 3D simulation of the Solar System and actually show you what would happen if he or she simply ‘deleted’ the Sun is something else altogether. There’s simply no comparison.

Now, remember that there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll have to do a lot of work here. Even if your teacher and IT department are fine with your idea, they probably won’t have the time to do all of the testing and setup. So when you’re talking to your teacher and the tech department, be sure to emphasize that you are willing to help with the installation. Once you’ve got the firewall set up and you know the programs are working as intended, installing the programs on the computers will be a relatively straightforward process.

And remember: if you get stuck, there are always people who will be willing to help you! I’ll leave my email address at the end of this post, and you are absolutely welcome to contact me if you have any questions or need any help. I might not be able to visit you in person (unless your school is very close to mine), but I can do quite a lot of research and testing remotely.

Should people care about video games in education? If so, why?

Absolutely! Video games are, of course, intended to be fun, but they can also have educational benefits. And one of the reasons that games such as Portal 2 and Universe Sandbox 2 can be more effective teaching tools than dedicated educational programs and simulations is that they make things interesting, and they make learning fun. One of the biggest challenges for teachers (especially high school teachers) is simply getting students to care about the material. Sure, there’s the fact that some material just isn’t at all interesting, but in many cases, the problem is the way in which that material is being taught. Something like Portal 2 or Universe Sandbox 2 will allow teachers to solve this problem due to the simple fact that students will be having fun. Video games have the potential to make a massive difference in our educational system; all they need are a little push from students and teachers alike.

What are your career goals?

I’m a high school senior now, so I’ve still got a bit of time ahead of me to work everything out. My interests are, of course, technology and science, and I also like engineering quite a lot. I could see myself in a whole range of careers, although I must confess that I do have a certain love for Valve’s rolling desks!

I can be contacted at dverlaque14(at)students(dot)hopkins(dot)edu with any questions, comments, requests for help, etc..

GLS live… a few days later

Check it out: here’s the audio and projector view of our 15 presentation at GLS 9.0 last week (skip ahead to 6:51 to hear us). 

Don’t forget, next week Lisa, Steve and I will be presenting at ISTE 2013 in San Antonio. Make sure you’re in SACC 216 on Tuesday from 2-3pm to hear how we used Portal 2 in our classrooms. Come say hi!

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Interview with Daniel V part 1

Teachers aren’t the only people trying to get Portal 2 into classrooms. It’s only natural that students too are pressuring their teachers and schools to try out video games in the classroom. One 11th grade student, Daniel Verlaque, was instrumental in bringing Portal 2 to physics classes at his school. And students at other schools need to thank Daniel, too, for providing technical support to Portal 2 educators around the world on Valve’s Portal 2 teacher forum!

I’ve been impressed by how hard Daniel has been working to get teachers to try Portal 2, so last week, I sent him a few questions about his thoughts on using video games as teaching tools. Here is part 1 of his (slightly edited) responses.

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How did your interest in teaching and learning with Portal 2 begin?

I’d never even heard of Portal until Portal 2 came out. One of my friends kept telling me about it, which interested me, but my mother had always been set against video games, so I never thought I’d get it. However, she happened to read a New York Times article that convinced her to let me buy the game. I instantly fell in love with Portal 2 and became a huge Portal fan.
Fast-forward a bit, to the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year–and my first high school Physics class. My Physics teacher is a very friendly guy who likes technology and actually wrote his thesis on using video games in classrooms. When I asked him if he’d ever played Portal 2, he said that he had, but he didn’t seem to think that we could play it in class because of cost and deployment issues. However, when I came across the teachwithportals website and discovered that Portal 2 was actually free for school use, he said that he’d love to give it a shot, as long as the tech department was OK with it. Over the next few months, I demonstrated Portal 2 (and Universe Sandbox 2, which was also available through Steam for Schools) to the tech department and then worked with them to deploy and test the software. Despite some obstacles, we eventually managed to get Portal 2 and Universe Sandbox 2 installed on all of our science department’s laptops.

Which classes are using Portal 2 [at your school]? Are students learning with any other video games at your school? How are classes that use video games different than traditionally taught classes?

At the moment, Portal 2 is not a widely used program at my school, in large part because it was only deployed halfway through the school year. My teacher’s classes played Universe Sandbox and Portal 2, but none of the other teachers have used them because they are not yet familiar with them. I will probably show the rest of the physics teachers how the programs work sometime in the near future so that they can decide how to incorporate them into their classes.
We played Universe Sandbox in January, at the end of our unit on gravity. Although we didn’t actually use it to learn the material (simply because the curriculum had been planned without Steam for Schools in mind), we did get to play it after the test, while the concepts were still fresh in our minds. It was really quite a lot of fun to watch the other students play Universe Sandbox for the first time and see the concepts they’d been learning from a blackboard come to life in a 3D virtual universe. I’d first played Universe Sandbox several months before we even learned about gravity, so it was especially interesting for me to see how my own understanding of the physics behind the game changed.

If you were teaching [insert any subject here], how would you teach with Portal 2 or other video games?

I’m going to stick to what I know–Portal 2 and Universe Sandbox in Physics–and say that I would use them to help demonstrate concepts to students and (when appropriate) use them to replace some of the labs we do in class. Instead of just drawing something like projectile motion on a blackboard and leaving it at that, I’d show the students what the concepts look like in an immersive 3D world. Universe Sandbox is especially interesting, as it’s really impossible to model a system of that scale in a lab experiment. When we learned about gravity, we were limited to drawings on the blackboard and a few (very simple) online animations. But with Universe Sandbox, a teacher can have his or her students actually understand what would happen if, for example, the Earth’s mass was changed to equal that of the Sun, or what would happen to Saturn’s rings if another planet got too close. These are things that you really can’t demonstrate on a blackboard. With something like projectile motion, you can at least draw a parabola on the board–which still pales in comparison to something like Portal 2, but at least you can do something–but there’s simply no way you can draw Saturn’s rings being ripped away by a rogue planet or a collision between two galaxies.

What advice would you give to educators who want to teach with Portal 2 or other video games?

The most practical advice I can give to educators is that they should try to avoid rushing into the setup stage. Make sure your IT department is on board and you have a good idea of what you’re trying to do. You’ll run into obstacles, but don’t get discouraged–there are lots of people who are willing to help you out!

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