Bring Your Valve To School Day: Teach With Portals

By Nathan Grayson on June 21st, 2012 at 11:00 am.

A modern American school child learning modern American school things.

Year after year, many schools struggle to teach kids basic math and reading skills. Portal, on the other hand, taught my childlike, directionally-crippled brain a slew of hyper-complex spatial reasoning abilities. In about 30 minutes. So I guess maybe it could be a good fit for the classroom. And hey, what do you know (aside from a Portal-imbued slew of hyper-complex spatial reasoning abilities)? Valve seems to think so too. The resulting program’s been dubbed Teach With Portals, and it’s just the beginning of Valve’s new Steam For Schools initiative.

Teach With Portals’ official website outlines the form its proposed amendment to the laws of education (and physics) will take:

“Valve recently began collaborating with educators to develop game-related teaching tools that revolve around STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. We’ve created Teach With Portals as a destination for this partnership, providing free content and game design tools, as well as an interactive community for exchanging lessons and experiences.”

“We understand that learning is not fulfilled by a one-size-fits-all approach, so we’re engaging with a community of educators, parents and students to create infinite possibilities for learning.  The educational version of our Puzzle Maker empowers students and educators to craft unique puzzles, explore worlds, and share custom lesson plans.  Teachers can also simply leverage other contributor’s shared lessons, selecting among the best of them to suit their learners’ needs.”

Steam For Schools, meanwhile, currently takes the form of a stripped down version of Steam that prioritizes educational functionality above all else. The hope, however, is that it can expand into something broader with time.

You can already scroll through a list of lesson plans, though, and at the moment, they range from simple physics and math (“getting faster as you fall,” “conservation of momentum”) to really cool (“man on the moon”) to ensuring that I can never win Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader (“building a harmonic oscillator”).

Normally, this is the part where I’d speculate where all of this is headed, but I just got off the phone with Valve, so we’ll have a larger piece up very soon about the Steam-powered giant’s plan to reinvent the positively ancient “modern” education system. It’s incredibly fascinating stuff. Here’s the short version, though: if you’re now finished with school, you were born at the wrong time.

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57 Comments »

  1. DanPryce says:

    But how on earth will Valve teach me numbers if they don’t know what comes after 2?

  2. paddymaxson says:

    Not satisfied with saving PC gaming, making PC games mroe affordable with great deeps discounts and making some of the best games ever, VALVe now want to educate children? I really can’t say enough nice things about VALVe

    • Alexander Norris says:

      But also: aggressively pushing their DRM that conveniently allows them to sell to people using it, a pretty poor track record of supporting modders (granted, it’s still better than almost everyone out there), being profit-driven and occasional lapses in judgement when it comes to announcing stuff to their customers. Don’t get me wrong, Valve are quite good by the standards of most corporations, but they aren’t exactly perfect little angels either.

      That said, this is a really interesting use of Steam. I wonder how far they’ll go with this, and more importantly, how much uptake there will be on the school side of things.

      • zeroskill says:

        “a pretty poor track record of supporting modders”

        Yeah, other then hireding modders, giving them jobs and the oportuninity of their live to make their perfect game. Jesus man, what is wrong with you?

      • Belua says:

        And even disregarding the hiring of modders, there are the Source engine modding tools and the Steam Workshop platform for easy access and sharing of mods.
        The Half-Life games have a bazillion mods, even some that turn them into strategy games or all kind of wacky stuff. Counter Strike was a damn Half-Life mod! Guess they didn’t support that either.
        Oh, and how could I forget about this new Portal editor thingy?

        I’m not seeing how they could do more without going open source and/or forcing companies whose games they sell to support mods.

        The DRM is a point, I guess, although I find it much more userfriendly and painless than other forms of DRM out there, and you can’t argue that Steam offers some pretty good upsides for the player as well. Disclaimer: I have never had any trouble with offline mode, always worked like it’s supposed to – for people who regularly encounter issues with it, I guess I see how they would think differently.

        I’d have to agree about the business tactics. It does look like an unfair advantage if a game like Skyrim requires Steam, creating a mass of new Steam users to sell to. But if that means more games use features like the Steam workshop, savegame sync, friend lists etc, I personally have no problem with it.

        Also, their “Valve Time” when announcing things and the near vaporware status of some of it is a direct result of them refusing to release anything they don’t find awesome enough for the players.

        • apocraphyn says:

          “The DRM is a point, I guess, although I find it much more userfriendly and painless than other forms of DRM out there”

          That doesn’t make it alright. One should never become complacent with such things, it only leads to greater erosions over time.

          • paddymaxson says:

            I’m not sure what the DRM problem is with steam? It’s nto like it requires your connection to be always on. If your connection is down you can click the go offline button and still play your games. the only DRM steam really offers is that your games are accessed through steam.

          • Dare_Wreck says:

            @paddymaxson – I really like Valve as a company and generally am really positive about Steam and everything it’s done for PC gaming, and I used to not understand why people would put down Steam’s offline mode as being poorly designed, not working properly, etc., as it always did the trick for me. That is, until about 3 months back when it decided to do one of its auto-updates behind the scenes (you know, where it grabs an update without telling you, and you don’t realize it until you start Steam up next). The very next day, the first day of a week-long stretch that my internet went down, Steam refused to go into off-line mode because it wanted to finish its update first, which it needed to be *online* to do!

            So, I was without Steam for a week. Granted, I had plenty of DRM-free games from the various bundles and GOG to keep me busy during that time, but I can see now how off-line mode isn’t the general panacea that many people like you claim it to be.

      • Joe Duck says:

        “being profit driven”
        Really? I mean, really? You are really seriously claiming that the company that has refused to make Half Life 3 for years and years is “profit driven”. How so? What decision was “profit driven”? Even the launch L4D2 being “profit driven” is very debatable.
        Look, I can understand that Valve makes this “generosity acts” to build an image of being the good guys. And I do understand that there is a certain calculation behind it. I also understand that we should not forget that Valve is a company and is selling products.
        But I would also ask YOU to accept that Valve is trying to compete by giving YOU better service and many others are not. And that makes a big, big difference.

      • FriendlyFire says:

        What have you been smoking? Must be some rather hard stuff, wow.

        I have no idea what exactly you’d like a game developer to give you so that you call them “modding-friendly”. Valve is pretty much THE go-to for modding, there are so many mods for the Source engine it’s absolutely ridiculous. Most of Valve’s franchises are mods, too (Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Dota 2…). If you want to whine about Valve’s games, try modding any bloody game that’s not made by Valve. I’ve been modding games that didn’t have mod tools whatsoever. Please don’t talk when you have no idea what you’re saying, it’s embarrassing.

        Yes, DRM sucks, but as has been said before at least Valve’s gives added value to the game and platform as a whole. We’re far from UbiDRM or *shudder* StarForce. I’ll also point out that Steam doesn’t require DRM, it merely provides it. The choice of using the DRM is one made by the publisher of each specific game.

        Finally, your claim that Valve is profit-driven is laughable. Of course they are! What’s the definition of a company, exactly?

  3. zeroskill says:

    Dear Valve,

    While I see the imidiate need to reinvent the american educational system, I’d like you to take a moment and listen to my plea. Please take some of your Steam money and buy the Quake Franchise and do exactely the same you did with Dota for Quake Arena. Thanks you very much. <3

    - A concerned Quake player.

  4. Hoaxfish says:

    This sort of reminds me of those jokes about Coke sponsored lessons.

    If Johnny buys one hat, and Jake has two hats, what is the amount of fun they are having?

    and now to see if EA starts offering to teach people about ethics (two wrongs do make a right)

  5. rustybroomhandle says:

    So there’s this, Minecraft, Spacechem, and that vagina-spelunking shooter thing. Any day now, school will be all about playing games.

    • Cockles says:

      Which will hopefully be a good thing! We often hear that kids aren’t interested in school and just want to play games etc (not sure how true or anecdotal this is but it obviously does occur and I’m sure school is not particularly engaging for a whole variety of reasons) so it’s good to see a games company be forward thinking and really push for the technology and concepts to be brought in to the education system rather than the traditional model of schooling blaming technology for education’s own problems.

      Of course, this could all be a sinister corporate exercise to brain-wash kids in to loving Valve and playing counter strike ALL day as some form of basic training to join Valves secret child death-squad army (Snr Chang, anyone?) in order to start a corporate empire. I guess I’ll know if a bunch of kids turn up at my door and beat me into submission, although this could happen anyway in the UK, if the media are to be believed.

      • torchedEARTH says:

        My son’s school invited the parents in one evening to discuss how they teach maths and it was really different and far more intuitive to how I was taught.

        It’s all down to engagement and still having measurable results.

        Go Valve, that’s what I say.

  6. Mr. Mister says:

    Uhm, I don’t think Portal is the best example of physics laws, since neither energy (potential energy) nor momentum actually conserve (momentum is a vectorial magnitude, thus any change in its direction means it doesn’t conserve. From an inertial SR that is).

    I guess a way to solve the non-conservative potential energy issue would be telling you that, everytime you portal yopurselve to a different height, the Aperture Science Nuclear Potatoe-Fissioner Reactor uses (or produces, depending on the sign) your mass times the height difference (approx) times gravity amaount of energy.

    I can’t see any soluion for the non-conservative momentum though.

    • Zunt says:

      Oh that’s easy enough. To fix the change in gravitational potential energy when you portal to a lower or higher altitude you just say that the subject gets warmer or colder as it goes through the portal. To fix the momentum problem you explain that a virtual subject is created as you pass through the portal that has a momentum vector sufficient to give you your new momentum as you exit the portal so the net momentum change is zero. This virtual subject then flies off to eat cake, or something.

      Four points to anyone who solves the entropic problems with the first part of the solution.

      • Brun says:

        The easiest way to handle both problems would be to consider the portal as an “outside force” acting on the subject. The portals are obviously maintained with energy from the portal gun, so that energy can be used to change the traveler’s momentum or potential energy. So when the momentum vector changes, or the subject’s altitude increases, the portal gun has to work a little harder. Similarly, when the subject uses a portal to decrease his or her altitude, the portal gun might be able to pick up some of that energy to recharge itself (explaining why its batteries don’t drain).

    • gunny1993 says:

      Maybe momentum is conserved because your direction doesn’t change just the relative position of the room does …. this is not really a solution tbh. Also it could be explained as a sudden change such as a ball bouncing off a wall.(I have feck all idea how this would work in a 3 dimensional space)

    • FriendlyFire says:

      In order to have a relatively solid understanding on how a portal works within the realms of physics, you’d have to first drop classical physics. This is firmly in the realm of general relativity.

      You could draw parallels between a portal and a wormhole, which despite being mostly a sci-fi construct can actually pop up from general relativity. In order for that to happen you must understand that space’s very shape (its topology) can be bent by gravity, even if you as an observer do not see that it is bent. Thus you could see a portal as some kind of tunnel that can be curved while appearing straight to any observer within it. Momentum is preserved locally for each infinitesimal displacement.

      I’m sorry if this is a bit of a confused explanation, the concepts are a bit complicated and I had a hard time understanding some of it myself.

      • Brun says:

        This really. Classical mechanics don’t apply particularly well without using some kind of “sci-fi magic” to fill in the holes.

        Plus, some of the elements of Portal’s backstory (including stuff from the ARGs) have strongly hinted that the primary mechanism of portals is indeed some sort of wormhole.

    • Aatch says:

      At the risk of going a little too far here…

      Basically, you are assuming that the universe is Euclidean, which even in reality is not true, see General Relativity. Since the Portal universe does not conform to the axioms set by Euclid (e.g. the shortest distance between two points is a straight line etc.), and assumptions based on them is false, this includes the idea of direction.

      If I have a 1 dimensional universe, which is just a line, then from the point of view of being on the line, there is only forward and back. However, if I fold the universe in two dimensional space, then while there is still only forward and back in that univere, but I can cause myself to loop without backtracking and without leaving the universe. So for example I can join the two ends of the line together to create a loop.

      In regards to Portal and the portal technology, if it were possible to bend the three-dimensional universe that we exist in through a fourth dimension of space, then the effect, physically, would be similar to what we see in Portal.

      Furthermore, from the view of relativity, the physics of the object passing through the portal is fine, all it experiences is change in other forces being applied to it, such as gravity. Sure from your perspective, it changed direction, but from its perspective, it stayed going in a straight line.

  7. sonofsanta says:

    Unfortunately I can’t see this running on the Intel HD2000 graphics that the best of the computers at my school are running :/

    I try to buy better for them, but Intel just won’t release Ivy Bridge in time, and AMD are rubbish atm, so sadface :(

  8. RogerMellie says:

    This may be an extremely ignorant question but…… kids have wide access to PCs in class these days? Even in physics classes? A PC isn’t even listed as a prerequisite; it’s just assumed…. My boggle is minded.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      I once handed in a typed assignment. The comment I got was ‘sloppily printed’. This was nearly 20 years ago.

  9. imperialus says:

    Coming at this from a teacher angle I gotta say this is made of a million kinds of awesome. I’ve already had students (jr high) using minecraft to build dioramas, submit podcasts instead of standing at the front of the room doing presentations, and other stuff. I teach Language Arts but I’m forwarding this sucker to some of the math teachers I know who I’m sure will eat it up.

  10. jumblesale says:

    The acronym for science, technology, engineering and math is actually STEaM.

    COINCIDENCE?

    • Skabooga says:

      And the word ‘Steam’ contains three consonants, which means . . . Valve invented the hard sciences as an alternate reality game to promote Half-Life 3! I knew it had to be coming soon!

      • gunny1993 says:

        BUT …. it contains two vowels, so using my Dan Brown learned symbolism I can deduce that the three constants represent all major trios (because constants are the pauper letters) and Valve (The awesome vowels) will only ever make two games. CAN I HAZ DEGREE IN SYMBOLGY PLX

  11. Brun says:

    inb4 MythArcana accusing Valve of pushing Steam on schoolchildren as part of a conspiracy to generate more sales.

    • The Random One says:

      Don’t be ridiculous. They’re doing it to indoctrinate children so that they never question the existence of DRM. JUST AS ORWELL PREDICTED

    • MythArcana says:

      And why else would a digital games distributor get involved in education in the first place? Because they have hearts of gold and they want children to prosper? Pfffffffft…please. vALVE is all about marketing, and this is just one facet of their shrewd business model.

      Besides, I wouldn’t want to see the kids that vALVE would be responsible for educating. I have enough stupidity around me as it is.

      • Brun says:

        Because they have hearts of gold and they want children to prosper?

        Three reasons, beyond the potential financial return from licensing products to educational institutions:

        1) Good PR.
        2) Possible tax breaks.
        3) Valve recognizes that it is a technology company and that having an education system capable of producing workers with technical skills is essential to their future.

        I don’t really see how this is any different from the multitude of STEM initiatives put on by various technology and engineering companies all over the country. The only thing that makes it special is that it utilizes “gamification.”

      • Gandaf007 says:

        Besides, I wouldn’t want to see the kids that vALVE would be responsible for educating. I have enough stupidity around me as it is

        Because getting kids interested in a subject they might otherwise not appreciate or enjoy is a horrible thing, right?

        The lesson plans that are put up are meant as introductions to concepts and ideas and this could very well help students a lot. I know I would probably enjoy math and science a lot more if this was the way it was introduced to me.

  12. MadTinkerer says:

    “Here’s the short version, though: if you’re now finished with school, you were born at the wrong time.”

    Oh, indeed, I knew that already. On the positive side, my kids will have an awesome education. (When I finally have a wife and kids.)

  13. Brumisator says:

    How they could leave out the A for arts from STEM is beyond me.

    • Faldrath says:

      That’s the part that bugs me as well. Too many of these new proposals to overhaul education seem to be horribly technical, focusing way too much on natural sciences and technology. That worries me.

      • FriendlyFire says:

        This is driven by the growing fear that there’s a scientific leak going on in countries like the US, which I have to say isn’t that far-fetched. Science isn’t popular among most of the population (how many people seem proud to tell you they just “don’t get maths/physics/…”?), we’re outsourcing more and more of our actually competent workforce, the reputation of most Western corporations is one of impotence and lack of innovation…

        There’s a lot of work to do and concentrating on STEM isn’t a bad thing, since I’ve never heard of a shortage of art majors (please do correct me if I am wrong!).

      • Brun says:

        Natural Sciences and Technology is where the education system (as it stands currently) is behind, particularly in the United States, as FriendlyFire noted.

    • PopeJamal says:

      Would you really want them to include the “A” for arts and then have that part be horrible and outdated?

      Valve as never been known to be the most artistic group of people on the planet. Christ, look at the UI for Hammer. Sure, they can hold their own when cranking out a game, but I think the vast majority of the people there are specialized in math and programming.

      There’s nothing wrong with playing to their strengths, and besides they’re just trying to help. It’s not their responsibility to be in charge of the entirety of education in your country.

      If you’re not satisfied with the focus of certain aspects of education in your nation, that is solvable with a thing called a “ballot”. That probably has nothing to do with Valve.

      • choie says:

        Yeah, you silly hippie, “the arts” and Valve? It’s not as if some of their games’ biggest strengths include fantastic writing, acting, imagery or music. The Portal games had no script, performances (either human or animated), artwork, soundtrack or songs that anyone cared about. Totally only about the mechanisms, those games.

      • FriendlyFire says:

        Hammer is an in-house development tool. It’s not meant to be approachable or pretty. It was most likely cobbled together over years of expansion of the engine with the programmers working on it having little to no knowledge (or interest) in UI design.

  14. ScottHarrigan says:

    Valve is such an awesome company. That just makes it all the sadder that I do not really care for their games all that much. They use their technology is such positive ways, so I do admire them quite a bit. School has not been fun in a while since they banned so much cool stuff because of the PTA. Hopefully this can make children not dread learning. This is needed because right now this is basically how a school’s attempts to make learn fun work right now.

    http://www.videodetective.com/tv/family-guy-clip-2/401537#.T-N437WCp-c

  15. FloydATC says:

    I really can’t see how this is any worse than what other companies like Microsoft have been doing to schools for more than a decade. Atleast the people at VALVe know the meaning of the word “quality”.

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