Steam for Schools – Portal 2 and Universe Sandbox

Valve has generously granted us a new set of toys to play with this summer – and possibly on into the next school year:

“Dear Educator,

Thank you for signing up for Steam for Schools!

You have been assigned the following accounts for yourself and [X] computers. Each account should be associated with a particular computer. Each account has access to Portal 2 and Universe Sandbox.[…]”

Hopefully this can be implemented without too much “gamification” causing students to miss the point; it looks and sounds very cool.

…my initial enthusiasm (the driving force for signing up “for more information” in the first place) about using a popular video game (that I even enjoyed!) subsided as I began downloading  Portal 2 for Education and Universe Sandbox.

What will this really be for? I thought. Did I actually think about physics and mathematics as I played through Portal 2 last year?

I thought up some possible pros and cons for this stuff before using it (and then, well, I typed it up):

Pros? Cons?
  • Fun, open digital environments in which to enrich learning of some mathematics and science concepts.
  • Platform may be familiar to some students (Portal 2 is a popular video game).
  • “Hands-on” experimentation and learning.
  • Steam for Schools disables all non-education-related Steam content.
  • Wide range of science and mathematics concepts can be picked out and focused on for a variety of potential mini-lessons.
  • Provides additional options for students to explain and demonstrate understanding.

Test Chamber editor.

Vague, really.

Portal 2 for Education is the full version of the game (which I suppose could be a distraction in the class), in addition to a neat, (pretty-)user-friendly “level-builder” with which you can make “test chambers” (like those in Portal and Portal 2). The drag-and-drop interface is easy-to-use (with a mouse, at least; laptop trackpads are a bit of a pain) and in just a little time, you can build some pretty simple, but operational, test chambers.

Test Chamber editor.

The mouse recommendation goes especially for playing through the chambers; MotioninJoy could also be useful for playing through test chambers (or, y’know, Portal 2) with a PlayStation 3 controller, which (especially if you played Portal 2 on a console in the first place, like I did) might make things a bit easier for some to handle.

Universe Sandbox looks potentially-less-distracting, though its openness could easily be its bane as a classroom tool. While open exploration is a fantastic way for students to discover how some of these concepts work, such time investments could detract from valuable opportunities for guided activities that are in-line with curriculum expectations. (For example, other games like Minecraft have potential as exploratory and demonstration media for other topics with some students, but the ability for players to do pretty much anything could easily undermine their usefulness.)

Universe Sandbox is a sort of “space simulator” that allows you to check out and play with space-y things like our solar system, with manipulable fields that allow you to change a planet or moon’s path and orbit, drop celestial bodies wherever you please, create black holes out of anything, anywhere, make galaxies collide, or have space whales float around Alpha Centauri.

While this type of “Lego-ware” has been gaining popularity for more than a decade (Second Life comes to mind, though we can certainly make a timeline further back with other simulators and games like The Sims, Spore, Rollercoaster Tycoon, SimCity, SimFarm, EVO, and plenty more; even World of Warcraft is seeing use in college classes!), their functions as classroom tools have always been limited. On the other hand, they make for some pretty fantastic supplemental materials, and can provide students with some additional options and opportunities to demonstrate learning:

  • Don’t have the right materials to make a sweet Rube Goldberg machine for the science fair? You can whip up a totally cool test chamber in Portal 2, for free, and even have your classmates play through it – at the science fair, in class, or at home.
  • Want to add some depth to a unit on the solar system? Universe Sandbox can be anything from a simple presentation to a demonstration of how planetary orbit works, and more.

There are a plethora of ways to use Steam for Schools in educational settings that, once available, could definitely be explored, and can enrich science and mathematics education in almost any grade. How do you think it should be used?

(Icing on the cake*, as it were.)


  1. Traverse City readers: Though I have a pretty busy summer before leaving for Kaktovik, I am excited at the opportunity to experiment with these tools to find some potentially-useful applications for them. If you have any interest in checking them out with me, please send me an e-mail!
  2. Anyone: I’d love to hear your ideas about Steam for Schools, especially if you have any experience! Feel free to leave a comment here, or send me an e-mail, and we can talk. I’d like to update this entry as I discover more. Thanks!

One thought on “Steam for Schools – Portal 2 and Universe Sandbox

  1. Hi,

    I cam across this post while doing a search to see if anyone else had made use of Universe Sandbox in their classrooms. Your overview of the two titles offered by Steam for Schools was insightful – I agree that the open-ended nature of the game (Universe Sandbox) could lead to students easily getting ‘lost’ or distracted. I find having a specific well-defined task with a set time limit for ‘playing through’ each task helps in that regard.

    Over on my blog, I have shared a lesson pan for using Universe Sandbox with ESL students as well as a second post with a few brief ideas. I’d appreciate any inout you also have:


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