PAX East panel shows how video games enter the classroom

At a PAX East panel today, Lisa Castaneda, a middle school math teacher from outside of Seattle, and Geoff Moore, a gaming entrepreneur from Toronto, discussed how video games can be introduced into classrooms, using Portal 2 as the test case.

Castaneda is an advocate for gaming in the classroom, having used Xbox 360, iPads and computers in her curriculum. Her interest in Portal 2 began with a school field trip to Valve, which is headquartered close to her school.

She and Moore use the Teach with Portals website, which Valve released to teachers last June, calling it a set of "free content and game design tools, as well as an interactive community for exchanging lessons and experiences." By November, more than 2,500 teachers had incorporated Portal 2 and Portal 2 Puzzle Maker into their classrooms — Castaneda among them.

"Just to clarify: Kids were proud of their math homework."

Castaneda and Moore have partnered to create lessons they can upload and share on the website. The lessons they've posted are housed under creative commons, so anyone can use them. The post includes a curriculum written for students by Castaneda.

"We give the kids a chance to play the games," Castaneda said. "Not a dumbed down version or an 'educational game.'"

In her classroom, her kids' homework is to play Portal 2. Using a PowerPoint presentation, they showed how the students use the Portal level editor to teach. One situation is to have them create a broken level, have the children to assemble it and then give them constraints with which they can create the level. The solutions allow a certain level of creativity.

"There is no answer key," Moore said.

The first room they showed offered at least two solutions — raise the floor or move the door. Both are correct.

The idea is to engage critical thinking skills. Castaneda said that it also fosters ownership. If a student blurted out their solution, other students would get mad.

"Just to clarify: Kids were proud of their math homework," Moore said.

When she first started incorporating this into the classroom, some students struggled with "confidence issues," Castaneda said. The solution was to create the "Aperture Science Training Program," which teaches students how to build levels in the game world. As the build, they learn about concepts like surface area and volume.

[Castaneda] believes that the logical thinking, sequencing and collaboration will help throughout their lives.

They also created the Human Aperture Labs Communication System — H.A.L., for short. It's like Battleship, Moore said. Two children sit across from each other, and one communicates how to build a level, while the other assembles it in the game.

The first level they introduced into the classroom was popular enough to keep a group of kids from recess — voluntarily.

"They skipped recess for math class," Moore said. "I never did that."

She learned that few students used 3D coordinates correctly, and she worked on that in the classroom.

Her lessons take days to create, but it's worth it because her schoolchildren benefit. Castaneda believes that the logical thinking, sequencing and collaboration will help throughout their lives.

"You need to have that connection with your students," Castaneda said.

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