The cake is a lie, but Portal for teachers is for real!

Through STEMulate Learning, I have been attempting to find different techniques and technologies that will appeal to young learners and encourage them to develop an interest in STEM studies. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – the “hard science” subjects.

A rendering for Valve's Teach With Portals using the Wheatley NPC robot's image.

Valve, the video game maker behind popular titles like Team Fortress, Left for Dead and Half-Life, has made their wonderfully entertaining Portal game into a tool for educators. Portal is a reasoning game in which players must solve puzzles and bypass obstacles using only objects in the environment together with a device (the Portal Gun) that can create linking holes between two locations. A representation of the in-game Portal gun

There is no single “correct” solution to get through the maze of barriers in Portal. The software includes a sophisticated physics model, allowing players to construct creative elaborate solutions based on their own understanding of how objects should react – falling, bouncing, redirecting optical beams and many other strategies for success in the game.

A common strategy for bypassing wide open gaps is the put one portal on a vertical wall and the other portal on the floor and then jump down into the hole. The game’s dimensional link between the two portals translates the resulting acceleration due to gravity from a downward velocity into a horizontal velocity, allowing the character to jump across the gap.

A simple example of the educator interface for constructing a new lesson's environment.

Valve’s Teach with Portals program provides educators with a virtual-world development tool in which educators can construct practical demonstrations of principles such as physics and mathematical analysis using the Portal engine.

An example of elastic vs. inelastic collision responses in which a solid cube lands flat while a ball bounces.

Shown is an example I created for physical collisions, illutrating both inelastic and elastic responses using solid and bouncing object types. Because these objects are represented in a visually realistic seeming interface and obey expected physical models of interaction, they help to translate concepts into a readily-consumable educational setting. Plus, as virtual world examples, they can be replicated and modified by students to test understanding and comprehension without the need for physical equipment for each exercise. A screencap of the Teach With Portals interface showing Lesson Plan sharing.

A growing number of educators are creating and sharing their own lesson plans with others, building a community interested in leveraging compelling video gaming technologies to engage with young learners whose focus seems at times much more closely coupled with virtual worlds than the physical one in which they live.

The "cake" used to motivate the main character in Portal, which has become a popular MemePlayers of Portal and Portal 2 might recognize the “cake” used to motivate the game’s main character and source of the Internet Meme “The Cake is a Lie.”  Unlike the cake, Portal’s capability to present lessons in an interesting and engaging fashion is definitely for real. Portal allows teachers the opportunity to engage with young learners in yet another new venue. Valve’s Portal is building STEM familiarity while letting learners have a great time!

4 thoughts on “The cake is a lie, but Portal for teachers is for real!

  1. Pingback: Portal Gaming for Educators | STEM Studies |

  2. Hi Kalani – So great to see educators using relevant tools that will really engage their students. For teachers looking to enhance this curriculum, they should check out robot engineer Chris Myles’s step by step instructions for creating Portal 2 personality spheres. He used an Objet 3D Printer, the SolidWorks CAD program, LED’s, color gels, and some every-day springs and paperclips. You can read about it and watch the video tutorial on the Objet Blog: Great STEM project!

    • Thank you for the link! I will make sure to pass this along to the educators working on the SOLID Learning engagement, as I think that the ability to perform hands-on education using technologies like electronics and 3D printing offer a much richer environment for developing STEM interest in our young learners!

    • This is exactly the type of educaitonal technology I was referring to in the SOLID Learning model when I noted the “advanced” printing functions that could be located at the district or area coordination offices, where multi-material and high-resolution printers like those from Objet along with full-color rapid manufacturing technologies could supplement the class-level fused-deposition-modelling systems like the Makerbot and RepRaps. To engage our young learners in STEM areas, we must use every possible tool and gaming designs that illustrate the direct digital manufacturing link between what they enjoy and what they can create into physical form are perfect to this task!