Category Archives: News/Updates

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 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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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?


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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logistics and momentum

I am started writing this during my planning period. We just finished the first part of the conservation of momentum lab (more on that in a moment). This was my first time doing a Portal 2 lab without prior access to our laptop cart because, well, this is the first time we’ve had the laptops in a cart. Before recently, they were stored in their original boxes and kept in my room. I had to move them to a cart so the whole school could have access, which is only fair, but I learned today that it takes a bit more preparation to make sure everything is up and running smoothly.

I received the laptop cart from the previous teacher a minute or two after class had started. As soon as my students finished their bell work, they picked up a laptop and opened Steam. At that point, they had to wait for me to come around and type in the Steam for Schools password. Then we started to run into issues. Different students tried signing on using the same username and began booting each other off Steam. For some students, it took a few tries to find a username that wasn’t already taken. (After today, I’ll be assigning students a specific username. Not sure why I didn’t think of this before.)

Some students turned on Steam only to find it needed an update (not a quick process on our ridiculously bad internet).

With limited connectivity in my classroom, some students lost their Steam validation after Portal 2 had launched, which led to some weird errors and unexpected game shutdowns.

Individually, none of the problems were a big deal. But troubleshooting 19 computers at the same time is a challenge, especially when I’m running a physics lab and helping students with the Puzzle Maker at the same time.

I let the lab progress until the last 15 minutes of class at which point I instructed them to sign out of Steam and log back in with a specific username. I gave each student an account number and had them log in with the option “Remember my password” checked. Now Steam automatically logs in.

I originally wanted to prevent Steam from automatically logging in on the school laptops. But this is a lot faster. Now anyone can play Portal 2 at any time without my permission, which, while potentially distracting for other classes, makes my life a lot easier. Our students are well behaved, though, so I’m not too worried that they’ll be playing without permission.

The conservation of momentum lab itself ran into issues. First off, it calls for cubes of varying masses. The problem here is that there aren’t any console commands to change the mass of cubes (yet). Instead, I substituted turrets for high mass cubes and spheres for low mass cubes. According to the game, normal cubes have a mass of 40 kg, turrets have a mass of 100 kg, and spheres (aka edgeless safety cubes) have a mass of 80 kg (Frankencubes are 50 kg).

Students will run into problems when they try using spheres, which roll around randomly. Any lab setups that require a stationary sphere quickly fall apart when the sphere rolls away. There are two solutions:

1) Boxing in the cube with light bridges.

2) Freezing time to keep the spheres frozen in place.

Option 1 is annoying and still never works right. Option 2 is slightly more complicated but works well.

How to freeze time:

1) Activate the console. Right click on Portal 2 in Steam. Click “Properties.” Click “Set launch options.” Type “-console” (without quotes) into the box that appears. Press OK and start up Portal 2. This only needs to be done once.

2) Make a level.

3) Press ` (the tilde key to the left of “1”) to open up the console.

4) Type “sv_cheats 1” (no quotes) and press enter. This only needs to be done once.

5) Type “phys_timescale #” (no quotes) where the # can be any number and press enter. The # will be a multiplier for how quickly time is passing. 1 makes time run normally, 0 makes it stop, 0.5 makes it run at half speed, etc.

Students can freeze time to keep spheres in place then run time normally to launch their experiment.

I also found students needed more instructions for making observations. They need to be reminded that they’re specifically observing changes in velocity, and as such need to identify both the speed and direction of movement of their objects pre- and post-collision.

Other than that, the lab went well. I’m still seeing a lot of enthusiasm for physics labs when we play Portal 2. The kids are trying hard even when they aren’t sure what to do or we’re experiencing technical difficulties.

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