A Portal to Learning: Physics with Video Games

13 Dec

By Ashley Gardner

A screenshot of a player solving a puzzle with the portal gun and a redirection cube. Educators around the country are beginning to use gaming technology in the classroom.Photo courtesy of pcgamer.com

A screenshot of a player solving a puzzle with the portal gun and a redirection cube. Educators around the country are beginning to use gaming technology in the classroom.
Photo courtesy of pcgamer.com


In Mrs. Brubaker’s physics classrooms students are testing gravity. The students must prove that acceleration due to gravity is 9.81 meters per second.

Junior Emily Doppel and Senior Sarah Swarthout dropped marbles at one meter and timed how long it took for the marbles to hit the ground. The marbles and the yardstick are meant to engage students in a hands-on physics demonstration, though not everyone in the class said they enjoyed the activity.

Students admit that physics is sometime boring, but what if they started using video games to teach?

One of the biggest challenges in teaching science, technology, engineering, and math is capturing the student’s imaginations long enough for them to see all the possibilities that lie ahead. Valve has made an entertaining video game series that teachers are using to help teach physics, technology and other subjects in school.

The video games that Valve has made are called Portal and Portal 2 along with a website made for educational purposes called Teach with Portals (http://www.teachwithportals.com/) and they were made using a physics engine which simulates real world physics. During the game Portal and Portal 2, the player controls a character by the name of Chell, a woman that finds herself in Aperture Science’s Enrichment Center under the supervision of GLaDOS (short for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) an artificially intelligent computer system that is driven to test. Players will have to solve brain puzzling problems and escape Aperture laboratories well using real world physics to beat the game.

Students will get to follow lesson plans made by teachers, get to make their own tests, and play a school-friendly version of the game. Yes, that means students will use a handheld portal device or what the game calls a portal gun that doesn’t shoot bullets but portals and be able to travel in and out of them using the real world physics to solve puzzles and learn physics in a fun, entertaining way in school that is totally free for educators.

The real world physics work just the same as it would if the portal gun existed in real life. It shots two portals out an orange and blue one and the player can travel through one and come out the other. You can ever place one on the floor and jump down into it and go out the other one at a greater speed. As GLaDOS said in Portal “Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman’s terms speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”

Cameron Pittman a teacher at LEAD Academy, in Nashville Tennessee uses Teach with Portals to help teach in school.

“I’m teaching with portals to help students study how objects move. In physics class, we call it “mechanics.” My students are learning about ideas like forces, energy, velocity, acceleration, and gravity.” Said Pittman.

Pittman continued later by saying “I think schools should consider teaching physics and critical thinking with Portal 2 and games like Portal 2. In the future, people will be working with crazy computer programs and technologies we probable can’t even imagine yet. It makes sense to start teaching with some wild technology today. Portal 2 and the Puzzle Maker give students a chance to play with some pretty cool technology right now and learn physics and critical thinking at the same time.”

Mr. Pittman and said he has used video games before this to teach but they weren’t the same as teaching with portals. He also teaches with other materials besides video games in Physics and Chemistry.

Mrs. Coon a Physics and Chemistry teacher at Watkins Glen High school that has never used Portal, Portal 2, or Teaching with Portals but has used interactive physics simulations in class and would use Teaching with Portals to help teach Physics. “It brings problem solving and critical thinking together that student need and it also introduces a technology skill that will help in the future.” said Mrs. Coon.

Mrs. Coon also said it is well suited for physics but she could not find anything for chemistry. Also the idea’s good and it might engage students that have checked out or stopped trying but it should not only contain video games but a balance of hands-on stuff and other activities too just like a class can’t only be lectures. Lastly she would like to see research done to see if it is actually helping kids learn because she does not buy it completely.

Though Valve didn’t have education in mind, they created a physics simulator that is powerful, accessible, free, and easily modifiable. Basically Teach with Portal allows for easy creation, manipulation, and sharing or virtual worlds that run on actual laws of physics. In other words, it’s perfect for the classroom.

Teachers can sign up to receive for free educational collection of portal 2 and its puzzle maker through STEAM for schools, the school-friendly version of the game, access to lesson plans and unique puzzles, and join a teachers only community forum to share experiences.

After proving that gravity is 9.81 meters/per second, students answered questions about gravity and what they did. Why do this year after year boring the students when you can add an element of fun to it. All you have to do is start thinking with portals.

Students Megan Daigle and Lindsey Suddaby answering question after the freefall lab in Mrs. Brubaker’s physics class. Photograph by Ashley Gardner.

Students Megan Daigle and Lindsey Suddaby answering question after the freefall lab in Mrs. Brubaker’s physics class. Photograph by Ashley Gardner.


One Response to “A Portal to Learning: Physics with Video Games”


  1. am i the cool kid now? « Physics with Portals - December 14, 2012

    […] 2 is gaining traction amongst high school students! Check out this informative overview of Teach with Portals (with a few quotes from yours truly) posted by a […]

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