Teach with Portals Learning Game


Portal 2 is a giant in the puzzle learning game world, whose educational benefits have been uncovered by math, physics & general science teachers. We spoke to two teachers Lisa Castaneda (a Middle School math specialist) and Cameron Pittman (a 10 and 11th grade chemistry and physics teacher), who use Portal 2 in their classrooms. They provided a unique insight into how the technology is being used in their classroom, and how students are benefiting from it.

What features of the game make it beneficial for learning?

Cameron: The Portal 2 Puzzle Maker is a powerful sandbox editor that allows students to create custom game levels. It affords students the opportunity to create worlds of their own design quickly and easily. In physics and upper level mathematics, it gives students the ability to build and analyse experiments that follow real laws of physics. Math teachers can take advantage of Portal 2’s regular, geometric aesthetics to teach geometry. Students in literature and history classes can bring stories to life with custom levels. By building levels, students actively participate in the engineering process.

Lisa: Some of the features of the game that I think make it very beneficial to learning, are that the game itself provides a rich problem-solving and reasoning environment with an interesting narrative just in and of itself. The Puzzle Maker allows students to transfer that knowledge from the game and the classroom environment into a space where they can build and manipulate as they see fit. The great power of games (any game really, but this one in particular) is that students get to experience the world first-person. So, for instance, if they were working with aerial faith plates and manipulating the height at which they could jump, they could then experience the parabolic motion first-hand when they played their room….this is not something I can easily emulate in the classroom.

Plus, the educational features of the Puzzle Maker allow teachers to manipulate variables such as speed, friction, and weight. There are great games out there, but there are not many level-editors that are easy to use, easy to learn and that transform students’ visions into reality as neatly and quickly as the Puzzle Maker.

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How have you incorporated the game into your lesson plans / standards?

I wrote physics laboratory lesson plans using the Puzzle Maker that are aligned with Tennessee state standards, Next Generation Science Standards and ACT standards. They can be found on teachwithportals.com. Each lesson plan requires the same level of rigor, both in terms of analyzing physics concepts and applying mathematics, that would be found in a physical laboratory counterpart. On my blog, physicswithportals.com, I demonstrate how I teach physics with Portal 2.

Lisa: I have designed lessons for geometry/spatial reasoning, parabolic motion, data and statistics, mathematical communication, logical reasoning, and game design. Each of them is aligned to Common Core Standards. Some are very specific, for instance there is a lesson on surface area and volume where students are building and designing levels but are also carefully calculating using specific mathematical formulae. Others, such as the data and statistics lesson, are much more open-ended and allow students to use graphing, measures of central tendency and analysis of data at their own discretion. Most of my lessons are already up on the Teach with Portals website.

How have your students benefited from using the game?

Lisa: My students have benefited from using the game in several ways, the first being able to explore and work with higher order thinking skills. Sometimes in our very standards-based environment we actually lose the logical thinking, sequencing, and creative thinking we need in order to be well-rounded, problem solving human beings. Games allow students to experience those elements while still solving “problems” as we traditionally think of them. By integrating games, such as Portal 2, into the classroom, we also bring an element of excitement and enthusiasm into the classroom. Sure, we are solving problems and doing math, but kids will literally stay in at recess to work on their problems and rooms (I have to kick them out) which is great!

I think that videogames allow students who perhaps do not traditionally shine in the math classroom have special moments. For instance, I had one student last year who really had a tough time focusing in class but when he designed his levels in Portal (and he did a free choice project with the game as well) everyone was amazed at what he could do. His work was far superior to any of ours, he could conceptualize a test chamber and a proper sequence of events within the chamber like no one else in the classroom. He was able to assist other students with the work they were doing, so I think it was an important time for him to showcase some of his skillsets that we didn’t always get to see.  Finally, videogames in the classroom also bring a kind of group cohesion. For instance, with Portal 2 I have really seen students bond together as they work to solve puzzles, true excitement as they discuss possible solutions to problems and much laughter as I, too, have struggled to work with and solve problems right alongside them.

Cameron: Through classroom discussions, laboratory reports and exams, my students demonstrated understanding of physics concepts and gains in their ability to solve physics problems. Moreover, students were excited and enthusiastic for physics and actively engaged in all lessons.

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How to get started with Portal 2

Portal 2 is available for Windows, Mac, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 making it accessible for almost every type of platform. For any teacher looking to dip their toe into the Portal 2 experience the first port of call is the  teachwithportals.com website, which has everything a teacher needs to know. The website has lessons plans (created by teachers themselves) using the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker and a community forum for peer support and problem solving. The aim of the site is to help educators create their own curricula with Portal 2 and help them use the software. The best news of all is that copies of the game are completely free for teachers when they sign up for the Education Beta.