Tag Archives: portal 2

#scigames session, tweet for tweet

Did you happen to miss our #scigames session at ScienceOnline? Never fear, check out this great Storify by Jessica Rohde to get a glimpse of all the awesome ideas thrown around.

And while you’re perusing the twitterverse (where you should be following me!), you’ve got to see some of the amazing artwork from our session:

Scribing 1

Scribing 2

Science with Portals! – this is my laptop’s new background 🙂

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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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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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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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