Oscillate Wildly: Teaching Physics with Portal 2

While I’m more interested in incidental learning from video games, as opposed to teaching with them in more formal ways, I recently had the opportunity to go into a local school (through the STEM Ambassador programme) and try using Valve’s Portal 2 to teach Physics to a group of secondary school students.

The students were in year S2 (around 14 years old in Scottish schools) and were all girls: this was part of a ‘Girls into Physics’ event co-ordinated by the Institute of Physics. Such events are intended to help address the gender imbalance in Physics at all levels, from school through to university and into industry. The girls here were approaching the point where they must decide which subjects to pursue, and the event was designed to help ensure Physics is on that list of subjects.

Teaching Physics with Portal 2

My Portal 2 set-up. The projector would not have looked out of place in the game’s Aperture Laboratories.

The way the event ran was as follows. The students moved between demonstrators in groups of around 12 at 20 minute intervals. Aside from my own Portal set-up the event featured all sorts of interesting experiments and displays, each manned by suitably knowledgeable and enthusiastic demonstrators from the Institute of Physics and the STEM Ambassadors programme. I came prepared with an educational copy of Portal 2 already installed on my laptop and a lesson plan adapted from those offered by US-based Physics teacher Cameron Pittman on collisions, momentum, and oscillations (see http://physicswithportals.com). My laptop was plugged into an impressive-looking projector and I awaited my first group of students.

While I had prepared the exercise, built a custom ‘test chamber’ in which to conduct experiments, and become familiar with the editing tools that ship with the educational version of the game, I was nervous about my lack of a Physics background. When I say I lack a background in Physics, I mean to say I haven’t studied it for nearly 20 years and even then it was competing with Chemistry and Maths for the coveted title of My Most Hated Subject. These fears were not entirely unfounded.

Portal 2 Companion Cube

A Portal 2 Companion Cube

Overall, the experience was fairly positive. Feedback from the students was good (they seemed to have fun, at least) but I have doubts about what the teachers thought of the endeavour. While I had crammed just enough Physics theory to get through the exercises, I feel I could have done more with a proper command of the subject. While 20 minutes seemed like a short amount of time to play with, both of my groups finished working through the lesson plan before time was up: a real Physics teacher could have used the few minutes that remained to ad lib a little, while I had essentially reached the limit of my knowledge of Science. As with most teaching, too, I think that I could have conveyed what little I did attempt to cover rather better if I had a deeper understanding of the material. You can almost always tell when a teacher is slightly winging it.

Another observation I would make is that my laptop and projector set-up was not ideal for a group activity of this sort. While the students for the most part were quite engaged with what was happening on screen, it was inevitable that those furthest from the keyboard and mouse would eventually feel somewhat disconnected. The more confident students were also able to dominate to some degree. We changed up who was ‘in the driving seat’ a number of times per session but in 20 minutes it is impossible to allow 12 people to get some hands-on time – especially when factoring in some time for each student to master the game’s controls. A better approach, hardware availability permitting, might be to have the students work on their own machines, probably in pairs. If I did something like this again, I’d probably also try and learn some more Physics in advance of the class or, better still, run it in collaboration with an actual physicist. Finally, while I did make the point that it took somebody with a grasp of STEM subjects like Physics and Maths to make a game like Portal 2 happen, I think I could make this point all the more convincingly if I allocated some time to talk about how these subjects relate to work in the video games industry. For example, a few words about the success of Kim Swift, lead designer on the original Portal, might be of particular interest to secondary school girls thinking about their subject choices.

The Smiths

The Smiths: not relevant to 14 year old girls in 2013?

An aside: my Portal 2 test chamber was entitled ‘Oscillate Wildly’. Turns out 2013’s 14 year old girls don’t pick up on references to The Smiths.

2 thoughts on “Oscillate Wildly: Teaching Physics with Portal 2

  1. Hah – noticed the Smiths title right away. Education by stealth! : )
    But yeah, great article. I like that there is this initiative to get girls to stay in STEM subjects (and/or video gaming!), and also found the reflections useful. Post or link to HATII blog, too?
    Congrats on what sounds like a useful experience both for the pupils and for you.

  2. Pingback: HATII Blog » STEM Ambassador Report: Teaching Physics with a video game

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