Tag Archives: education

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.


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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SXSW Education and #scio13 review

Two announcements:

1) There’s a great review of the #scigames session Erik and I ran last month at ScienceOnline 2013 up at Perrin Ireland’s Science Scribe blog. It’s definitely worth the read!

2) I will be attending the Tuesday and Wednesday sessions of SXSW Education next week. Really looking forward to all of the great speakers and learning about new techniques with tech and games in education. Let me know if you’re going to be there!

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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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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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ISTE 2013, ScienceOnline 2013, and GAME Webinar

Yours truly will be making a few public appearances in the upcoming months as I, along with two other educators, travel the country (a little bit) expounding on the idea of video games as classroom tools.

First up, this Thursday night, I’m going to be interviewed by the fine people of Gamers Advocating Meaningful Education (G.A.M.E.) as part of their Guild of Educators series. You can watch the livestream of the webinar and ask questions as Steve Isaacs, Lisa Castaneda and I discuss how we have used Portal 2 in our respective classrooms. Steve is a video game design and development teacher in New Jersey and Lisa is a math teacher in Washington state.

Later this month, I’ll be travelling to Raleigh, NC to discuss Portal 2 in the classroom with Erik Martin as part of ScienceOnline 2013. This will be my first time at ScienceOnline. It sounds like a cool conference. I’m expecting a lot of audience participation while we discuss video games as classroom tools.

And now the big one. This summer, Steve, Lisa and I will be presenting at the prestigious ISTE 2013 conference in San Antonio. Our presentation is entitled “Learn with Portals: STEM Education Through Gaming.” We’re really excited to share our approaches to Portal 2 in the classroom with a national audience. I’ll definitely have more information about our presentation and the conference as the conference date approaches.

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