Tag Archives: physics

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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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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student projects part 1

At the LEAD Academy, our exams must come in three parts: content knowledge (usually in the form of multiple choice), ACT style questions (in whatever form makes sense for your particular class) and an essay. I decided to get creative with my essay and asked my students to build then summarily describe a level they built inside the Puzzle Maker. They had almost two weeks to work on their projects. I’m pretty happy with their results. For the next few posts, I’ll be spotlighting and describing their levels.

This first level, like many that will follow, lacks coherence or logical design. It looks more like a hodgepodge of random elements, which is pretty common. However, it does show two physics concepts, projectile motion and conservation of energy, and I did not grade on principles of level design. This student wrote an excellent essay about their level and how it relates to physics so they earned an A for this portion of their exam.

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New toys in the puzzle maker!

Valve released some new items for the educational build of the Puzzle Maker! Here’s a rehash of some older videos about momentum and collisions using the new toys.

Bonus feature! Check out this crazy oscillator device I made with contraption cubes of different masses. It’s pretty mesmerizing. The cubes get heavier from left to right but the strength of each aerial faith plate is the same.

Here’s a quick high school physics lesson.

My oscillator reminds me of the wave pendulum in the video below because both systems show repeating patterns. The swinging billiard balls form a wave with varying frequency. My oscillator also appears to be demonstrating wave-like properties.

The billiard ball pendula are oscillating on strings of varying lengths but are pulled to the same angle. The period (time of one oscillation) of a pendulum pulled back to a small angle is

Period = 2Π√(length/strength of gravity)

So, if you increase the length of the pendulum, you increase the period. Each progressively longer pendulum takes a bit more time to make one period in the same way that each progressively lighter companion cube stays in the air a bit longer. Of course, the game’s oscillations aren’t perfect. I’ll take another look at the differences between the way the cubes are bouncing and how they should bounce to determine the exact variations between the physics of aerial faith plates in the game and similar launchers in real life.

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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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