Newton Blog

« The Science of Stink: Human Body Odor | Blog Home Page | Female Genitalia Are Cool, Too! »

Valve's 'Portal' Educates and Inspires

I love being a lab rat.
Portal.jpg
I love being poked and prodded through maze-like rooms filled with puzzles that challenge my problem-solving and spatial reasoning skills.

I also love receiving positive reinforcement when I complete those difficult challenges.

But most of all, I love the fact that I can have these experiences while sitting safely reclined in my computer chair, perhaps with a bowl of froyo (yes, froyo) next to the keyboard.

I'm talking, of course, about Portal. If you've played Portal, a video game by Valve Software, you probably understand my adoration. If you haven't played Portal, you can... for free. That's because Valve is now offering their award-winning video game for download at no charge until tomorrow; all for the noble cause of promoting science education.

Wait a tick, how will offering a video game for free help science education? After all, our students don't need another reason to be distracted from their homework. Well, Valve answers this question quite convincingly on their website:

One of the biggest challenges in teaching science, technology,

engineering, and math is capturing the students' imaginations long

enough for them to see all of the possibilities that lie ahead. Using interactive tools like the Portal series to draw them in makes

physics, math, logic, spatial reasoning, probability, and

problem-solving interesting, cool, and fun which gets us one step closer

to our goal--engaged, thoughtful kids!


Portal succeeds with flying colors in this respect. The game challenges you to solve virtual puzzles by controlling portals. You can use these portals to manipulate objects in the level as well as to propel yourself through barriers and around obstacles.

To launch their educational endeavor, Valve invited the 7th grade class from Evergreen School into their studios to try out Portal for themselves. The effect on the kids was astounding. According to Valve's Karen Prell:


[The kids] sat down with Hammer [the level design tool for Portal] and they created rooms and they compiled the maps and when those maps opened up, suddenly [the kids] were in the game featuring the room that they had built...They were so excited... so excited!

The experience provoked an equally positive reaction from the Valve staff.

"It's really exciting to see the pace at which the kids take a tiny little spark and then go off and do their own creation," Valve designer Jeff Lane said.

It is far too often that complex subjects like math, physics, logic, and spatial reasoning are represented by equations on a worksheet or multiple choice answers on a test. Games like Portal showcase the worldly implications of the aforementioned scientific disciplines by bringing them to life.

According to the students' teacher, Lisa Castaneda:

We've been working on a spatial reasoning project, so the kids were

building these models and they were rotating the figures in space and

they were taking pictures of them and doing drawings. Then we're able to

come to Valve, and using the Hammer tool, [the kids] are working with models

and rotating figures in space in order to create a level in Portal. It

was just a fantastic real-world application of what we did in class.


Curious? Portal is not just for kids; it's for everyone. Download the game and give it a

try. Take my word for it: your mind will never hurt so good.