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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Players 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!