Valve sets up Portal games for educators, students demand cake

Back when I was in school, we learned about physics the old fashioned way: by dropping bowling balls on our feet. But kids these days aren't interesting in bowling balls and pain, they're interested in video games, and Valve's new education initiative uses Portal 2, GLaDOS, and Chell to teach physics and math.

Professional test subjects may have unknowingly picked up a lot of physics while playing through Portal and Portal 2. For example, momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman's terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out. Simple, but still a valuable lesson, and it goes way beyond momentum.

Here's a sample lesson plan from Aperture Labs (seriously) for teachers to use Portal 2 for in-game teaching of the principle of terminal velocity, featuring your old friend, deadly neurotoxin:

Oh no! GLaDOS is trying to kill Chell again with deadly neurotoxin. In order to escape, Chell jumps down what looks like an infinitely deep pit and reaches terminal velocity on the way down. Let's assume that Chell has a mass of 50 kg and gravity within Aperture Labs is 9.8 m/s2.

a. If the deadly neurotoxin flooding the air increases b from 3.2 N-s/m to 4.5 N-s/m, by how much will Chell's terminal velocity decrease?

Now, test subjects should be reassured that when the lesson refers to "deadly neurotoxin," the "deadly" is in massive sarcasm quotes. You could take a bath in the stuff, or put it on cereal. Not that you should, but that's chemistry, and we're talking about math and physics right now, so focus, dammit. If you don't here's what your test results will say: "you are a horrible person." I'm serious, that's what it's going to say: "A horrible person." We're not even testing for that. But don't let that horrible-person thing discourage you. It's just a data point. On the other hand, for test subjects who do well, educators are encouraged to reward them with delicious, moist cake. Just not too much cake, lest they somehow manage to pack on a few pounds.

Valve is providing a restricted version of Steam along with Portal 2 and Portal 2 Puzzle Maker, the game's map editor, for free to anyone who wants to use them for education. The hope is that a community of level designers and educators will be able to create an array of innovative lessons in physics and math (eventually extending to chemistry and more) using the Portal 2 engine. You can sign up for Steam for Schools at the link below — all you need to do is include some basic contact information about how many test subjects you've got in your Enrichment Center.

It's been fun. Don't come back.

Teach With Portals, via Tekgoblin

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