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This could be the biggest triumph ...
June 21, 2012 4:00 AM   Subscribe

Teach With Portals. Last summer, a New York Times review of Portal 2 made the following prediction: "Somewhere out there an innovative, dynamic high school physics teacher will use Portal 2 as the linchpin of an entire series of lessons and will immediately become the most important science teacher those lucky students have ever had." With Teach With Portals, Valve's new education initiative, this just might be possible.

With a focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Valve will be introducing an educational version of their Puzzle Maker (AKA Perpetual Testing Initiative). And yes, there are lesson plans, complete with assistance from Wheatley, Chell and the rest ... (via Rock Paper Shotgun)
posted by grabbingsand (45 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's pretty awesome.
posted by delmoi at 4:13 AM on June 21, 2012


The interaction tends to be free-form and experimental and as students encounter new tools and challenges they may develop an intuitive understanding of physical principles such as mass and weight, acceleration, momentum, gravity, and energy
Brilliant, they're going to teach momentum and energy using a simulation that doesn't conserve momentum or energy.
posted by edd at 4:18 AM on June 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is excellent.
posted by robcorr at 4:20 AM on June 21, 2012


Geez. You can teach concepts without a 100% accurate simulation of the concept.
posted by robcorr at 4:22 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, that harmonic oscillator? Not harmonic (assuming they're making an oscillator the obvious way in Portal).
posted by edd at 4:24 AM on June 21, 2012


"Geez. You can teach concepts without a 100% accurate simulation of the concept."
Actually in this case, I think with a carefully thought out lesson plan you can teach the concepts much better by discussing how a portal breaks them. Take this question from one of the plans:
"In the original Portal, GLaDOS tells the player that “momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals.” In layman’s terms, what did she mean?"
Wouldn't it be better to ask why she was wrong as well?
posted by edd at 4:36 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can teach concepts without a 100% accurate simulation of the concept.

Portal is not "not 100% accurate" in conservation of momentum and energy. It is deliberately the opposite of reality.

When you go through a portal and end up traveling perpendicular to your original vector, you momentum vector is also perpendicular. Where did that original X-axis (say) momentum go and where did the Y-axis come from? This isn't a case of losing a decimal place, this is a case of record-scratch sounds coming from Isaac Newton.

When you hold a block above the floor, it has a certain potential energy. Just as it hits the floor, all that potential energy is converted to kinetic. But if you drop it into a portal, the kinetic energy keeps growing, above the original value the potential energy had. Again, not a "forgot to carry the two" error but violation of fundamental law.

Using physics simulators in class has it's place (although I'd also like kids to be using real objects too for many reasons, not least because Real Data Is Never Like Simulated Data). And, used right, the portal parts of Portal can be a great way to show the way physics *doesn't* work.
posted by DU at 4:38 AM on June 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think it will also be useful in social studies class, to simulate what it's like to not have parents...oh wait, you already know what that's like.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:44 AM on June 21, 2012 [26 favorites]


Looks cool. Would be way more interesting if the whole thing was open source rather than a "free" product for education.
posted by mr.ersatz at 4:47 AM on June 21, 2012


Wouldn't it be better to ask why she was wrong as well?
At the risk of losing a lot of science cred, why was she wrong? I've only played Portal 1 once, but from what I remember, when I stepped (or, more often, plummeted) into portal A, I would immediately emerge from portal B at the same speed and relative angle. That looks a lot like conservation of momentum to me. Is your complaint that I emerge at the same angle relative to the exit portal rather than relative to the universe, or is there something else I'm missing?
posted by metaBugs at 4:48 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interesting.

It seems easy to dramatise the energy problem by showing how, given a portal, you can construct perpetual motion machines (a vertical stream of water driving a wheel, for example). You could ask pupils to invent some.

But that only really works if you assume the portal itself is free in energy terms. God knows, of course, how one powers an arbitrarily placed fiery hole, but if sustaining the portal always uses more energy than is required for the shenanigans it's implementing - are we OK again? You'd have to assume that at some point, asked to do too much, the portal would just close.

Momentum, obviously, could be converted and dealt with along similar lines by (waves hands).
posted by Segundus at 4:49 AM on June 21, 2012


You emerge at the same speed, but that's not the same velocity. Velocity and momentum are vector quantities.
posted by edd at 4:51 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


You'd have to assume that at some point, asked to do too much, the portal would just close.

How does the portal know how much it is being asked to do? It would somehow have to detect from how high you'd dropped a box, in my example.
posted by DU at 4:52 AM on June 21, 2012


As a sort-of-ex-science-teacher, as well as someone who has loved playing the Portal games, I'm going to have to say that I don't think this is a great idea.

Games are all about providing us with a escapist's version of the world, with every inconvenient physical restraint conveniently switched off. We inhabit perfect, tireless bodies that always interact with the environment in the same ways. Getting kids to engage with the actual physical world can be hard enough these days, and it's not as though Newtonian mechanics is some abstract idea that's hard to illustrate with tangible demonstrations.

That criticism aside, even if this were a valid tool for teaching basic mechanics, that's only a small fraction of a typical school science curriculum.
posted by pipeski at 4:56 AM on June 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


You can teach concepts without a 100% accurate simulation of the concept.

Particularly given that Newtonian physics itself is not a 100% accurate simulation of actual physics.
posted by mhoye at 4:56 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd think something like The Incredible Machine would be a more logical teaching tool. Certainly you could use the Source engine for it--a Garry's Mod mod would be trivial.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:06 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can anyone tell me what Chell could have done differently to avoid looking so stupid in that jumpsuit? Anyone? That's right, the correct answer is nothing.

God knows, of course, how one powers an arbitrarily placed fiery hole

Miniature black hole!

...which I would assume is ridiculously energy expensive to create in the first place and maybe only good for a fixed number of portals, explaining why there seem to be so few working portal devices scattered around Aperture. I've always kind of assumed those fixed one-way portal generators on the test chamber walls are all piping whatever exotic energy they need from some central generator in the facility, and the portable device just contains a smaller (but potentially much harder to create and maintain) version. The wall mounted generators are never turned on until Chell enters the chamber, which says to me that either holding a portal open isn't free, or they can only stay open for a limited time (conveniently just a little more than the player can actually spend staring at one) before something needs to be expended to make a new one.
posted by emmtee at 5:07 AM on June 21, 2012


How about when she's wandering around behind the scenes, but can still make portals (given the right kind of materials)?
posted by Grangousier at 5:18 AM on June 21, 2012


My local indie movie theater has a "science on screen" series where they watch a sci-fi movie and then try to analyze it in terms of modern scientific understanding. (Ie, based on zombie behavior, it's clear that they have malfunctioning amygdalae.) It's highly entertaining, but ultimately just pseudoscience with a few useful facts strewn in. I want to be optimistic, but I have a feeling that "Teach with Portals" will be similar.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 5:22 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would like to point out that the off-the-cuff debate in here about whether or not portals actually conserve momentum, and if so how accurate that is, is precisely what would delight educators about this program. It's stealth education, and it exposes people to how fun science should be, rather than an exercise in rote memorization.

If students wind up debating the utility of the game to teach real science, using real science, then the game had utility to teach real science.
posted by gilrain at 5:26 AM on June 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


Oh, on abject failure to preview: fair enough then. Yes, the physics in Portal only works if you accept that portals are basically magic. However, if you just accept them as magical items the break the rules in an otherwise reality-like world, they let you do some fun and surprising stuff that highlights what those rules actually are.

A lot of science research consists of poking at systems until they break in interesting ways, then trying to work out what the hell just happened. I do it by adding, removing or modifying proteins in a cell's regulatory network; phycists do it by building simulations with key variables or assumptions about the universe tweaked slightly. That sort of thing is generally out of the reach of kids, especially the maths required for adventures in physics. Portal gives them a physics simulation in which one object breaks the rules in a totally consistent and predictable way, then asks them to figure out how it differs from the real world and, as a part of trying to exploit those differences, what the rules that it's breaking actually are.

For the example about potential energy: if we have one portal above another and drop a box in there, it'll get faster and faster forever, or possibly up to some terminal velocity. This isn't something that happens in real life so it must be related to a rule that the Portal is breaking; Despite knowing that the Portal itself doesn't change an object's speed, there's energy being input to the system somewhere; We know that this doesn't happen with two portals aligned horizontally. A little bit of teacher-led discussion, and we've just discovered potential energy in a visually and conceptually powerful way.

Of course it's something that needs to be taught carefully, making sure that pupils understand that Portals are magical teaching aids that break the rules. But I do think that, with the right teacher and/or a carefully designed course, they could be pretty powerful.
posted by metaBugs at 5:34 AM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


BIO 460: Invasive Species Case Study: Plants Vs. Zombies
ENGL 300: Fitzgerald and Miyamoto: The Zelda Connection
ARCH 101: Tetris, Minecraft, and the Brutalist Tradition
BUSI 247: Braid: Advanced Time Management
DWRF 500: Boatmurdered: Lest We Forget
posted by oulipian at 5:35 AM on June 21, 2012 [16 favorites]


The lesson plan on parabolas is pretty good.
posted by ShawnStruck at 5:36 AM on June 21, 2012


BIO 460: Invasive Species Case Study: Plants Vs. Zombies
In all seriousness, the (computer) game Pandemic and the CDC's analyses of zombie epidemics are actually pretty good starting points for introducing people to epidemiology. A lot of nuance is missing, but for complete newbs they provide pretty good demonstrations of explosive spread through a population, and the difficulty and importance of maintaining quarantine.

Of course, if you get the sniffles halfway through teaching the course, there's a danger that one of the more confused students will do you in with a shovel, just to be sure. But teaching has never been for the faint-hearted.
posted by metaBugs at 5:47 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


You emerge at the same speed, but that's not the same velocity. Velocity and momentum are vector quantities.

Wait -- your issue here isn't with some sort of inaccurate physics modelling that might mess up a lesson plan, but rather with the fundamental concept of what these imaginary portals do in terms of altering the movement vector?

That seems like a misplaced concern, no? Do you think students won't be able to separate out the fantasy element? (Or are you trying to point out that there's something inconsistent in the real-ish physics modelling + one new rule about portals that would actually be confusing for students?)
posted by nobody at 5:55 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do you think students won't be able to separate out the fantasy element?

I think everyone here has said that if the fantasy element is highlighted and it is discussed what makes it fantastical, then the lesson would be a good one. If not, then not. It certainly isn't obvious to a child that the physics is not just cartoonish but actually deeply wrong.
posted by DU at 5:58 AM on June 21, 2012


God knows, of course, how one powers an arbitrarily placed fiery hole

I'll invite you over for my special ghost pepper chili night and explain it to you.
posted by Riki tiki at 6:43 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


BIO 460: Invasive Species Case Study: Plants Vs. Zombies
ENGL 300: Fitzgerald and Miyamoto: The Zelda Connection
ARCH 101: Tetris, Minecraft, and the Brutalist Tradition
BUSI 247: Braid: Advanced Time Management
DWRF 500: Boatmurdered: Lest We Forget


You made my day.

TRON101: Getting Programs to Respond!
MRIO322: Cooking with Turtle
CLVA411: A Legacy of Conflicts in Eastern Europe
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:55 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


What a bunch of debbie downers here.
posted by brain_drain at 7:07 AM on June 21, 2012


What sort of forces are propagated through portals?

We know Electromagnetic forces must be because we can see through them. Therefore magnetism must be, but gravity does not appear to be.

How would portal change if it was.
I suspect that if you had one portal on the ceiling and another on the floor below it the propagation of gravity would lead you to float halfway between the two(?)
I might have to go and draw some free body diagrams to figure this out.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:12 AM on June 21, 2012


All this is ignoring the question of why gravity doesn't bleed through the portals.
posted by atbash at 7:43 AM on June 21, 2012


Of course zaphod asked that 20 minutes before me.
posted by atbash at 7:45 AM on June 21, 2012


How would portal change if it was.

Well, you've got a big problem here. Without doing any real analysis, the back of my envelope tells me that /some/ gravity is effectively happening twice, and eventually whichever portal is farthest from the local gravity well is going to start hoovering things up until it's not closer any more. The farther apart you put them on the major local gravitational axis, the more crap will get sucked through. If you're lucky there's not too much mass nearby.
posted by atbash at 7:49 AM on June 21, 2012


It certainly isn't obvious to a child that the physics is not just cartoonish but actually deeply wrong.

They made the same argument in my day about kids who watched The Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons and look, we still managed to make iPads.

The kids will be fine.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:52 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I had a science teacher who taught us by showing us Roadrunner cartoons and having us work out which parts were physically impossible. Portal could get kids thinking about a whole bunch of fun stuff.

What's next, guys? Banning fiction from English classes because made-up people can't illustrate fundamental truths about the human experience? Banning X and Y from math classes because symbols don't properly depict purely abstract concepts?
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:19 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Apparently we do need to ban fiction in English classes, based on the reading skills on display in this thread.
posted by DU at 8:24 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yet what are we to do with the grouses and pedants that can never help but shit on ideas at the start of threads, hm?
posted by cavalier at 8:28 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


It certainly isn't obvious to a child that the physics is not just cartoonish but actually deeply wrong.
Perhaps not so deeply wrong. I don't know all the details of momentum conservation in a curved universe, but I do know you can't just compare vectors at different points. Momentum in Portal is locally conserved.
posted by eruonna at 8:42 AM on June 21, 2012


Family Skills: NO NO NO
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:02 AM on June 21, 2012


This Was a Triumph Painting
posted by homunculus at 10:22 AM on June 21, 2012


Portal: Terminal Velocity
posted by homunculus at 10:23 AM on June 21, 2012


I have nothing to back this up, but it seems to me that the existence and behavior of portals is only 'impossible' in terms of rigidly Newtonian physics. No doubt theoretical physicists at Fermilab or CERN could give you an explanation of the rules of Portal that make them perfectly plausible in real world terms, without breaking too much of a sweat. You'd just have to dive into some really gnarly higher-level stuff (indistinguishable from magic).
posted by naju at 10:46 AM on June 21, 2012


I think it really is difficult to get portals to work as depicted. You might solve some problems with strong gravity around the portal but that just isn't seen in game.
posted by edd at 1:37 PM on June 21, 2012


"Today's science fiction is tomorrow's science fact."
- Arthur C. Clarke

I'm quite confident we'll be seeing Portal guns at some point.
posted by prepmonkey at 7:53 AM on June 22, 2012


I'm quite confident we'll be seeing Portal guns at some point.
For about a week and then it's a JJ Abrams script all the way to the end.
posted by fullerine at 10:52 AM on June 22, 2012


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