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Reinventing the Science Fair With Portal 2 Puzzle Maker

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Portal 2 Puzzle Maker: Making Space for Physics (Video Transcript)

Lisa: I definitely think that the digital media provides a different way of looking at the content. The thing that I love the most about the Puzzle Maker and my algebra students especially just loved was, we were talking about parabolas and we were talking about vertical motion and then we built it and they got to go in the game and experience it. Because you talk about, "Oh, we're throwing the ball or we're bouncing off the thing." Well, you go into the Puzzle Maker, you jump off the aerial faith plate and it was neat for them to actually experience how that changes the motion virtually.

Joshua: Portal 2 is basically a game-based really simple premise. It's this idea that you can do this impossible thing in our world, which is open a hole in space in one place and another, and if I go in one hole, I'll come out the other one. That world fit really well into a space where you could actually have an editor and make your own puzzles so that, you know, you weren't just being challenged by what we could create. You could actually create your own challenges and you could share them with friends. So the Puzzle Maker is really all about that, giving people that chance to put on the hat of a designer, sit down and try their hand at what they can come up with.

Yasser: I think that what makes an authentic experience is that it's really open. We didn't really frame the problem, other than giving you a set of rules for how these items interact. It really is kind of an open play space.

Student: I think the best thing about working with Portal 2 is that you can just do what you want and the community test chambers are really awesome, because it's just your design that you can play, instead of playing the levels that are there for you.

Yasser: We kind of sense that people are really interested in and have started talking about puzzle craft itself. We've kind of been thinking about features that can kind of help people learn from each other, and to take the process we go through of creating something, play testing it, iterating on that and then building that into the game itself, so that process becomes a fun, natural extension of learning how to create puzzles.

Joshua: If we think about what worked with the Puzzle Maker and what didn't, I think what felt like we got right was the kind of lowering that bar to entry for people. A week after we released it, we had like a hundred and twenty thousand submissions, which is well and above anything we would have expected. And so I think it was exciting, not just to see that many people making maps, but that many people sharing their maps, because I think making a map is one thing, but actually putting it out there for everybody else is another.

Leslie: When you are able to, within seconds, transfer from building the puzzle with the different assets in the palette, to actually playing the level you just created, you are in the video game playing it, that is an unbelievable sense of accomplishment for a young person. The puzzle maker has a threshold that's so low for someone to just try to put in some effort that what comes out of it feels really good.

Yasser: Over time, I think my concept of where games provide value has kind of shifted. Now I kind of think of it more as instilling a useful pattern of learning. So rather than presenting the information and then challenging and then testing, I think it's more interesting to present a place where kids can practice kind of the love of learning, kind of show them how once they've kind of attained agency in that skill set, they can then create and share and kind of loop back in a way that's kind of relevant to their peers.

Lisa: Learning is enhanced when students are engaged. The kids that are engaged come at it from a different perspective with a different excitement and I think a different type of retention and ability to apply it.

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  • Director / Camera / Editor: JR Sheetz
  • Associate Producer, Edutopia: Douglas Keely
  • Web Video Strategy Coordinator, Edutopia: Keyana Stevens
  • Senior Manager of Video, Edutopia: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Special Thanks: Valve, Adam Ingram-Goble, Lisa Castaneda and her class

This video was originally produced by Institute of Play, and was made possible through generous support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As an educator, I have always focused on incorporating play into my practice. When presented with an opportunity to open ChicagoQuest, a school that values play as a key component of learning, I jumped at the opportunity.

As an avid gamer, I found Portal 2 to be easily one of the most complex, challenging, and funny games in recent memory. When I played the game with middle school students in my after-school video game club, I was inspired by the way they interacted and engaged in thoughtful conversation around problem solving within the game. I immediately began to think, "How can I include this game in my math and science curriculum?"

Why Portal 2?

I wanted my students to be able to experience each of the NGSS Science and Engineering practices (PDF, 630KB) in a game-based learning environment.

Actually doing science or engineering can pique students' curiosity, capture their interest, and motivate their continued study. The insights gained from these practices help them recognize that the work of scientists and engineers is a creative endeavor. (Minstrell & Kraus; William)

The Portal 2 Puzzle Maker is a robust game design tool that allows for a student to experience many of these practices in an authentic way. I framed the project as a way to:

  • Come up with a question
  • Design an experiment
  • Get feedback and iterate along the way
  • Make sense of their findings.

The Portal 2 Mini Science Fair

Instead of doing a science fair with a potato battery powering a light bulb (a project that gets reimagined in Portal 2 as punishment for the AI character GLaDOS), I thrust the students into the role of game designers, where they took control of implementing all aspects of an experiment from start to finish. Some students tracked how many portals their test subject used. Others looked at how long it took to complete the levels.

They developed a testable question related to the game, designed a test chamber to gather and analyze data, and communicated their findings to their peers. Students were asked to quantify their findings, so their question had to be easily measured. They compared these factors with other variables such as age, gender, and past experience playing the game.

Tips on Using Portal 2

Practice, Practice, Practice

Portal 2 does a great job of teaching the game mechanics as you progress through the game. In order for students to understand how the Puzzle Maker works, they need to have some experience playing through the single-person campaign. Through gameplay, the students are able to see the logic and flow of the game, and how the components of the test chamber relate to and build upon one another.

Want to see some genuine excitement? I saw these kids display more joy and pride after passing a level than I ever did when they tried to see if Train A arrived before Train B if they both left Kansas City an hour apart.

Discuss and Reflect

Playing through the single-person campaign led to discussions about gameplay strategies, where I asked students to articulate their thought processes:

  • What are some other ways this room could be solved?
  • What do you predict is going to happen next in the story?
  • What clues from the narrative support your prediction?
  • If you could change something about the test chamber, what would you change and why?

What rich discussions! As part of the reflection at the end of class, we would play through a level together and open it up for discussion. Students talked about the multiple ways they solved each level, the Easter eggs they discovered, the different parts of the story's narrative, and how they solved technical issues that came up along the way.

Design, Test, Iterate

The Puzzle Maker tool is the perfect platform for students to experiment and playtest on the fly. It provides a safe place to give and receive feedback. If there was a flaw in the level design, students were able to immediately implement that feedback in a new design. As designers, this tool gave the students an opportunity to build an experience and see results in real time.

I embedded multiple points where they could get feedback on their level design along the way. I first modeled the process by playing each student's level and giving them warm and cool feedback around their level design and test question. Then, later in the process, students picked a playtest partner who went through the same process with them to make further iterations. Finally, after collecting data on their final design, the students were given feedback on gameplay by their test subjects. This information was included in their final report as suggestions for further ways to iterate and improve the user experience.

For anyone considering using Portal 2 in the classroom, there are some great resources and lesson plans available on the Teach with Portals website. Lisa Castaneda's Forget Aperture, This is My Test Chamber -- Data and Statistics Final Project is a great example of how teachers can use this powerful game-based learning tool to engage students in the actual doing of math and science.


  • Minstrell, J., and Kraus, P. (2005). "Guided inquiry in the science classroom." In J. Bransford and S. Donovan (Eds.), How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.
  • William, D. (2007). "Content then process: Teacher learning communities in the service of formative assessment." In D.B. Reeves (Ed.), Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning (pp. 183-204). Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree.

Edutopia's Made With Play series takes a look at game-like learning principles in action and commercial games in real classrooms -- and offers tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice. Get more resources for game-based learning here.

Videos made possible through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Made With Play series is a co-production with Institute of Play.

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Made with Play: Using Games for Learning
Game-like learning principles in action, commercial games in real classrooms, and tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice

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