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March 31, 2013 / carlispina

Teach With Portals: A PAX East Panel

While at PAX East last weekend, I had an opportunity to attend a very interesting presentation on how one teacher is incorporating Portal 2 into her math classes in collaboration with a game designer. Last June, Valve made a significant move towards working with students when they released Teaching with Portals and Steam for Schools as free tools for teachers interested in using games, and specifically Portal 2, in their classrooms. Using these resources, Lisa Castaneda, a middle school math teacher, and Geoff Moore, a game developer, developed several lesson plans that teach students math, spatial reasoning and communication skills. All of these lessons have been released under a Creative Commons license and are available on  Castaneda’s website and on the Teach with Portals website. Best of all, the classes are designed to meet the Common Core standards.

At Castaneda’s school, all students have access to laptops that they can take home, which makes it easy for Castaneda to assign Portal 2 as homework when she first introduces the game in each class. Once all of the students are familiar with the basic gameplay mechanics, she then moves onto using the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker that is included in Steam for Schools to have students create their own levels and work through her lesson plans. Lessons start with fixing broken levels, which first requires students to build a level to written specifications, then play through it to identify what is wrong with it and finally fix it so that the level works. Other lessons focus on both spatial reasoning and communications by having a battleship-style setup (called Human Aperture Labs Communication System or H.A.L.) where one student can see the plans for a room and must describe them to another student who then builds that room. In that lesson, Castaneda found disparities in how genders communicated with one another that she hopes to study further with a larger group of students at some point. Another style of lessons is centered around statistics with students collecting data on how other students solve problems. Castaneda noted the importance of including time for reflective conversation after each of the levels to help students transfer what they learn in the game to the real world, but she also admitted that in her experience not everything transfers well. However, she did find that all students spent more time on assignments, did more optional assignments and did well on tests after using the game in class.

In the future, she and Moore expressed an interest in exploring  how these sorts of lessons could be used with non-gaming adults and building H.A.L. lessons around students giving instructions to one another in a non-native language. Castaneda has already done some research based on this work and is also hoping to be able to do more research in the future with a larger sample of students. She also wants to explore using more games in her classroom, such as Antichamber, for which she has just designed a lesson plan. The presentation was packed with interesting ideas about using Portal and other games in the classroom and I am really glad that I had an opportunity to attend. Both speakers plan to post their slides online and I hope to add a link to them to this presentation once they are available.

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