## 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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## one week of teaching with portals

Here are three student made levels from the first week of playing Portal 2 in physics. You’ll see they’re simple with extraneous objects and obvious objectives, which isn’t surprising given that they had only played about two hours of Portal 2 before making these. To be clear, these weren’t for any particular experiment in class. Students made these as first attempts at making puzzles.

It’ll be interesting to compare these novice levels to what they make after they familiarize themselves with Portal 2. I’m excited to see how they progress.

Overall, I’ve seen some interesting reactions from the kids. For the most part, they seem pretty enthused. They’ve been explicit about how they appreciate applying what we learn in lecture to what they can do in the game. I even had a student tell me that she enjoyed using math for the first time when she used data from her own experiments to calculate the strength of gravity. Students have made comments about how engaging physics lessons are with the puzzle maker, and I’ve had numerous kids tell me they’re looking forward to physics class, which makes me feel pretty good!

So far we’ve run through a few labs where they’re building really simple experiments in the puzzle maker.

In this lab, students are measuring the distance and time of a fall to calculate the strength of gravity in-game. The students who fell the farthest measured the most accurate measurements so far. Without an in-game timer, students have to use a regular stopwatch to calculate the time of their falls. Unfortunately, they aren’t the most careful bunch and tend to be off by a sizable fraction of a second each measurement. That kind of error wreaks havoc on measurements when the fall time is only about half a second anyway. They need a long fall time to minimalize issues from their reaction times.

Class average:

5.3 panels/s^2 (actual value: 4.7 panels/s^2)

In this lab, students are calculating terminal velocity by measuring time and distance as they fall in an infinite loop. They then repeat their experiment with a cube. When I originally wrote this lab, I hadn’t considered the idea that portals could impact velocity. Since then, I’ve found that portals slow objects down, which almost makes this lab pointless. However, I still taught it as practice for data collection and to identify that cubes are subject to a bit more friction than players (I think). Either way, this lab easily led into a useful discussion about the effects of friction and air resistance.

Class 1 averages:

Chell: 10.8 panels/s          Cube: 9.8 panels/s

Class 2 averages:

Chell: 10.8 panels/s          Cube: 10.8 panels/s

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## success!

I’m feeling really good right now. After about a year of work, I finally got a full class of students playing Portal! My physics students played Portal 2 for an hour in class yesterday. On Friday, they’ll be doing their first lab (on gravity). Keep an eye out this weekend for some student made experiments!

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