Thinking with Portals

There are a few things about me which will come apparent during the general chit-chat of this blog. One of these things is that I like video games. A lot. My brother (he might also be mentioned a lot in my blog) used to play games and I would sit and spend hours watching him, I still do enjoy doing this to this day. I love video games so much, I actually presented about this  love in my interview to get into Moray House. I didn’t realise at the time that although it was stated that you could do the presentation on whatever you wanted, I probably should have done something on Physics. Oh well, I did something right! I mentioned in this presentation work that I have done in the past, before my PGDE began with using video games as an educational tool and I’m going to explain in further detail below what I did, and why I think it worked very well. You will need to know a little about the game itself. It seems a little out there, but trust me, it is fantastic. 

ImageAbove: Chelle and GlaDOS, the protagonist and antagonist.

Portal 2

For those people who know a thing or two about video games, you will have heard about this game, and have almost definitely played it ten thousand times. For those who have never heard of it before, let me explain. Portal is a first-person shooter where you play as Chelle, a test subject who has to make her way through a different number of test chambers using the only “gun” that you are given: a Portal Gun. It shoots an orange portal and a blue portal. You can place these portals on certain surfaces and when you walk through one, you come out of the other. The test chambers are run by GlaDOS who provides commentary and very little help. (GlaDOS is also definitely evil, but also quite lovely all in the same and SPOILER you throw her into a fire at the end of the game). Portal 2 is the sequel where you end up reviving her by accident and you are STILL trying to escape, but anyway, this isn’t important.

The actual plot doesn’t matter much towards the educational value, but it gives you an insight to what makes me amused. Anyway, the most important thing in the game is this portal gun where conservation of mass, and conservation of momentum are held. This is where you can use Physics to your advantage. The test chambers which you are in increase in difficultly each time, and you need to use a number of different problem solving skills to get through each one. The physics engine is completely amazing in this game, and you regularly have to use your knowledge of momentum and mechanics to get to different stages of the game. 

The Physics engine in the game is truly phenomenal and programmed beautifully. You use momentum, gravity, pressure, projectiles and even reflection and refraction to help you get through different levels of the game and you barely even realise that you are doing it. If you like Physics, I would recommend that you try and see what it is all about.  It is all very well and good me describing it, but you cannot understand fully until you have played it yourself.

ImageAbove: How you can use the conservation of momentum to your advantage in game.

But, how can this be used in a classroom? There are many different ways these games can be used. The game can be purchased on Steam, powered by Valve (from Half-life fame fellow video game nerds) and have made deals with schools before to make the price a little cheaper. They understand how these games can be beneficial for school pupils. This is something that you could do if you have decent laptops within the school so that it could be installed on each one, and then the entire class could work through it together. There is also a level-making mechanic so you can always create your own level to try and show a particular concept, and then set the pupils on it. Or they could always do this themselves! 

When I worked with Portal 2 over a year ago, the resources that I had was an X-Box 360 and a copy of the game. This can still be useful. Although it wouldn’t work to have all the pupils working with the game at the same time, it is possible to set groups of four/five to play through a level with the one controller. This is what I did. The groups would take turns controlling the game on a level from the game that I had picked out previously and discussed what Physics concepts they could see in action. Group discussion was very beneficial in this exercise. If one person saw a Physics concept, they had to explain to the others what they saw, how it ties in with their previous knowledge and how it works in the gam

ImageAbove: Example to show how the portal works. The orange portal is behind the turret and it can be seen through the blue portal to the left. 

The level that I set for them contained good examples of manipulating the portal’s conservation of momentum; there are pitfalls which show gravity; catapults which fire you into the air and shows projectile motion and even a box which contains a sphere of glass which reflects the laser in the level. The worksheet that the groups were given was designed in such a way that the amount of detail that they put into their answers was up to them. When I did this in class, I worked with groups of Access Science 3, Intermediate 2 Physics and Higher Physics pupils. The first question asked them to pick out as many Physics concepts that they could see in this level. The Access Science 3 pupils didn’t pick up on the idea of momentum or the reflection that occurred in the level. They focused more on using gravity and how the speed into a portal is the same as the speed coming out of the other portal. The Highers picked up on most of the Physics in the level, as well as the Intermediate 2s. 

When I was using this method, I used in in such a way as not to teach them new concepts but to reinforce the Physics that the pupils already knew. It is good for pupils to see Physics in a whole range of different situations, and to see the Physics that they learnt in class in a new and different environment. 

Feedback on the whole was good. Most of the pupils that took part seemed to enjoy the activity. When I did this task, I was still in my undergraduate Physics degree, and hadn’t yet begun my PGDE. I know now that this activity contains a good amount of active learning, engagement and feedback.  If I was to do this activity again, I would probably change a few things. Firstly, I would try with single-sex groups. I found that during the activity, if the girl was in the minority, they tended to let the boys do all the “playing” and were self-conscious about playing the game in front of them. Also, I think that more time would be needed for the groups to get comfortable with the controls and thus working on a laptop with the game might be better. Also, if they were to work by themselves, it would be easier to give them easier or harder levels based on their ability and to really differentiate with the tasks that they would be given.

There is now a fantastic website ( which I would have loved to have as a resource when I was doing this activity, but it contains some more ideas about lesson plans and what you can do with the game. 


And here we begin…

Good Evening, 

I am going to try this blogging thing one more time and hopefully I will get it right this time. I’ve have sat and watched many of my friends and colleagues enjoy the time that they spend blogging and writing and have become a little bit jealous, so I am jumping on the bandwagon. 

So, I feel like I should say a little about me. I am a 22 year old student teacher from a small town in the North of Scotland currently living and training in the big city of Edinburgh (not big for some, but big enough for me!). I did my undergraduate Physics degree in the small seaside town of St Andrews, which I sometimes miss. The Physics department there are completely amazing and if you haven’t been there before, I would definitely recommend it. 

My love affair with Science began at a young age. My brother who is 5 years my senior had a Chemistry set. On a side note, I wonder how many people’s love for Science started with a Chemistry set – I would imagine that it would be a fair amount. But I digress. I remember that he would show me the different things that he would be making and the cool effects that could be seen (obviously I only looked, was far too young to play myself). By the time I got into school I was itching to learn more and more science, and this passion has stayed with me. Through my Advanced Highers and into my Physics degree.

But why teaching? Being only 22 years of age, I sometimes feel like I must be mad to jump straight back into high school again. For years I always considered teaching and through Outreach work that I carried out during my undergraduate it became apparent to me that this is what I want to do. I honestly cannot imagine doing anything else. I absolutely love every stress-filled, frustrating moment of it. 

Many people get into teaching for the wrong reasons. Fact is, it should be for one reason and one reason only: the children. This is the case for me, and if this is ever not the case, it will be time for me to put away my whiteboard pen and make way for new and exciting teachers to take my place. I am a teacher of children first, and of Physics and Science second. 

But that is it for me just now. Hopefully, my dear blog reader, you will understand a little bit more about who I am although I will probably ramble about myself again at some point soon. For now,