Tag Archives: portal 2

Portal in Santa Clara, California

Over the past two years of Physics with Portals, I’ve gotten emails from dozens innovative teachers around the world who want to teach with Portal 2. And it’s awesome. I love helping out however I can.

Last week, I got an email from Tom Perazzo, a digital media teacher in Santa Clara, California. I got excited. Of course, I was excited that another teacher wanted to give my lesson plans a shot in class. But I was even more excited that Santa Clara is only 10 minutes from my house (and on my way to work)! So I had to ask to drop by to see what his students were doing.

This morning, I signed in as a visitor at Santa Clara HS and stopped by Tom’s classroom. Check it out!


Tom’s class 1

photo (1)

Tom’s class 2


Tom teaches digital media classes, and, as you can tell from his set up, his classroom supports his students well.

His 9th – 12th graders were working on two assignments. Some students were finishing up their Rube Goldberg machines, which they had to design, build and describe on their blogs. Other students had moved on to a physics experiment, roughly pulled from my lesson on forces using aerial faith plates. You can see Tom’s example experiment on the big screens.

In their experiments, students analyzed how high faith plates would launch cubes based on their masses and the forces of the faith plates. Tom instructed students to launch cubes of whatever masses they’d like by faith plates of whatever forces they want.

Students then recorded the maximum height of the cubes by employing the same alternating black and white panels strategy I use. Once they finished (probably in the next class?) students were to graph their results and, hopefully, start making predictions about how high cubes might fly.

Way to go, Mr. Perazzo’s class! Y’all are awesome!

Any other intrepid teachers out there? I’d love to hear what you’re up to!

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girls and portal 2

I love hearing from innovative teachers who are exploring new ways of taking advantage of video games in their classrooms. I’ve recently been speaking with Megan Pusey, a science teacher with a penchant for gaming at an all girls secondary school in Australia.

Megan’s students finished a physics unit with Portal 2 last month. Girls and video games aren’t traditionally associated together, so who better to help us understand the classroom dynamic between girls and games than Megan. Check out what she has to say about girls, games and her classroom in our interview below. Even if you aren’t a teacher at an all girls school, Megan has some great insights for anyone preparing to teach with games.


MP: I’m a science teacher at an all-girls school in Australia and last year I tried using Portal 2 in one of my physics classes to see what would happen. I am also a gamer at heart and was inspired to combine my two loves of gaming and teaching by blogs such as Physics with Portals (and the fact that Steam for Schools was offering copies of Portal 2 for free). During 2013 I taught three classes of 25 students and ran about 6-7 sessions using Portal 2 embedded into the regular physics program. This is the last compulsory science course for these students (15-16 years old).

CP: Do they love it? Hate it? Feel hesitant but come around? Avoid it at all costs? Are there any interesting stories that came out of your Portal unit?

The girls had mixed reactions to playing video games in class. Some students were very excited about it and only one or two students had played Portal before.  A majority of students did not see themselves as ‘gamers’ and were resistant to the idea and reluctant to try. They saw video games as ‘not their thing’, they were scared they ‘wouldn’t be good at it’ and it was ‘something their brother plays’, not them.

I remember having a conversation with one student who said in disbelief “You’re forcing us to play video games in class?” to which I replied “Yes! Give the first level a go and if you don’t like it you can stop playing.” The student didn’t stop playing.  Many of the reluctant students really came around to the idea after they gave Portal 2 a go and realised it was not what they thought video games were like. It challenged the girls and required them to use their brain. Some students even bought a copy of Portal for their own personal use after enjoying it in class. A few students didn’t enjoy Portal 2, they were very resistant to trying it. Most of the students in this category have chosen not to continue studying Science this year.

Were you surprised by any of their reactions?

I was surprised by how much conversation Portal 2 created amongst the students. Many would work together in teams to solve the puzzle rooms. If anyone was stumped by a puzzle they would ask other students who had already completed the puzzle for help. Many students were frustrated when they kept failing but there was a sense of accomplishment when they finally conquered the puzzle.

Did the girls learn more with Portal than they would have otherwise?

I’m not sure if the students learnt more using Portal 2 than they would have otherwise. Learning is extremely difficult to measure. My goal for using Portal 2 was to show students that Physics can be applied in unexpected places (such as video games) and to keep the topic interesting and engaging. I used the Portal 2 lessons as more of a lab/practical lesson where students would take measurements within the game and apply their knowledge of concepts they had learnt in class. Portal 2 also allows students to simulate actions they can’t do that in real life (e.g. jumping from a height to measure acceleration due to gravity).

How did your co-workers react?

Many of my co-workers were intrigued by what I was doing. They had not used commercial video games in the classroom before. Some of my colleagues are still unsure of video games and have no inclination to use them in class. Most of my other colleagues have an open attitude would be willing to explore the use of video games in class. However, they all said they would need some training first to learn more about video games in order to use them effectively in class.

Did your thinking towards video games in the classroom change based on your experience?

Last year was my first time using video games for the purpose of teaching and my thinking towards it has definitely changed. I was experimenting a lot to see what worked and what didn’t and one big discovery was that to get the learning goals across I had to supplement the game with other activities. These activities stimulated the students’ thinking about the physics concepts, otherwise they just saw it as ‘playing games’.

Any advice to teachers who are considering using games in class?

Be familiar with the game your self

Spend some time playing the game you want to use. That way you can help students if they ask questions or get stuck. You will also quickly discover if the game is suitable for your purposes.

Give students time to become familiar with the game

I had students who had never played a first person shooter before, so using the keyboard and mouse at the same time to move around was very alien to them. They needed time to get used to the game and how it works before learning could take place.

Direct the learning

You can’t expect students to achieve your intended learning goals by just playing a video game without any teacher support. Students aren’t going to notice things like the conservation of energy unless you help them see it.


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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.


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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Portal 2 at PAX East and Data

Two things:

1) Lisa Castaneda and Geoff Moore recently spoke at PAX East about teaching geometry with the Puzzle Maker. I love the idea of “broken levels,” where students have to finish building levels with certain restraints.

2) Here’s the data I used to analyze projectile motion, in case anyone ever wants to do their own data analysis: Portal 2 Position Time Data, Portal 2 Velocity Time Data.

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