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!

“Staff Picks” from Horizon Books

Between May 2011 and June 2012, Mr. VanWagner was employed at (among several other places) Horizon Books in Traverse City, Michigan. Each month, bookstore employees are encouraged to recommend books to customers; these monthly staff picks are found at the front of the store and beneath each staff member’s bio on the Horizon Books website. The following are some of the reviews that Mr. VanWagner wrote (several are, sadly, missing; these recommendations are listed at the bottom).

There is a variety of ways to assume “appropriate reading levels” for books. Since these recommendations can vary a lot between sources – Lexile‘s framework for reading is a favorite, so I’ve included those measurements – based on studies, student samples, experience, the content of each individual book, and many other factors, information provided here in these respects will be limited. Age levels provided are only suggestions; it is advised that parents and teachers research these books as they feel necessary, especially for younger readers.

(Reviews listed newest to oldest.)


by Neil Gaiman

After helping a mysterious girl named Door he finds dying in the street, Richard Mayhew’s life – and world – are turned inside-out. People like his fiancee don’t recognize, remember, or even acknowledge him. With no life to return to, Richard follows Door into the shadow world of London Below – home to a strange menagerie of inhabitants from rat-speakers and scavengers to bounty hunters – to find out who killed Door’s family and is now after her. On the journey, Richard, Door, and their companions evade the vicious Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar and uncover a deep plot with as many twists and turns as the labyrinthine tunnels of  London Below.

  • Lexile Measure: 760L
  • Recommended: 13 and up

Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots

by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones

Just what is it about kids’ books with strange teachers, anyway? Though they seem to come by the boatload, Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots is a cool take on the creature-teacher subgenre.

When the new teacher, Mrs. Jeepers, lands in the third grade at Bailey School, the kids begin to wonder how they’ll survive the year. A great mix of tension and humor makes Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots (and the rest of the Bailey School Kids series, too!) a wonderful pick for young readers for the Halloween Holiday!

  • Lexile Measure: 600L
  • Recommended: 7 and up

Paper Towns

by John Green

Quentin “Q” Jacobsen has harbored an unrequited love for the mysterious Margo Roth Spiegelman for as long as he can remember, but he never would’ve imagined where she might take him. Appearing late one night, Margo drags Q on an all-night adventure – and then vanishes the next day. Q soon finds that Margo has left an elaborate trail of clues for him to follow, and on the way, Q discovers  things he never knew about Margo, his friends, and the rest of world around him.
Written by blogger, pop-culture fanatic, and technocrat John Green, Paper Towns is sure to pull readers in on an exciting and memorable journey!
  • Lexile Measure: 850L
  • Recommended: 13 and up

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King

Love to write? Thinking of dabbling in fiction, trying your hand at horror, or even penning your own memoir? Whether you’re struggling to put ideas on the page, or want a fresh take on an older piece of work – King fan or no – On Writing will help you to develop a mastery of the craft.

On Writing‘s uniqueness is that it doesn’t read like a drawn-out instruction manual the way many “How To Write” books often will, because On Writing isn’t your traditional English or Writing book. Part autobiography – in which King reveals much about his early life and career – part anecdotal advice – complete with tips on how to start your own writing process – and all-around entertaining, On Writing will keep you turning the pages and taking notes along the way.

  • Lexile Measure: 1110L
  • Recommended: 14 and up

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod – Book One – Eighth Grade Bites

by Heather Brewer

Another vampire book? In the midst of what seems like a recent oversaturation of “teen vampire” novels, Heather Brewer brings something new to the table by stirring up an old pot. In this first installment of the four-part Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, we’re introduced to Vlad as an Eighth-grader who just-so-happens to be a vampire. More fun and mystery than angst and heavy romance crowding this particular subgenre, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod is a series sure to please young adult boys and girls alike.

  • Lexile Measure: 780L
  • Recommended: 9 and up

Breakfast of Champions

by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions is an eccentrically-twisted jaunt through the late life – and descent into madness – of Dwayne Hoover, an auto dealer plagued by the writings of Kilgore Trout (Vonnegut’s recurring alter-ego throughout many novels); as Hoover spirals toward madness, we see how oddly he interacts with those around him and affects their lives. While a strange and humorous tale unfolds on the surface, Vonnegut is (perhaps not-so-subtly) using these vibrant characters to pitch his thoughts on the American way of life, from love and sex to war and peace. Surprisingly-relatable and uncannily funny, Breakfast of Champions is a great read for both die-hard Vonnegut fans and novices to his works!

  • Lexile Measure: 930L
  • Recommended: 17 and up

The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s unique, charming style (equal parts eerie and captivating, with a dash of goofiness) carries readers through his creative re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. A dark fantasy that’s more than simply any old retelling of another oldie-but-goodie classic, The Graveyard Book weaves the tale of young Bod, a boy who escapes the murder of his family and is raised by a host of ghosts and ghouls in a graveyard. Brought up living in a spooky landscape among the dead, Bod becomes ever more curious about the world of the living, wanting to venture out from the strange land of his childhood.

A wonderful read for children, teens, and – yes – even older folks, The Graveyard Book is a great October read that breathes fresh life (or unlife, as it were) into an old coming-of-age tale.

  • Lexile Measure: 820L
  • Recommended: 10 and up

Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History

by Bryn Barnard

Is this a kids’ book? Don’t be fooled by its size and cover – Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History is a great read for young scientists and older science buffs alike! This mini-volume of pop-science introduces microbes and the effects that they can have on humans, and chronicles the social and scientific effects of several plagues – including the Black Death, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and influenza – throughout history, and explanations of how citizens and scientists still struggle with diseases today. Complete with beautiful and wonderfully-detailed pictures and paintings, Outbreak shows readers big science in a small binding!

  • Lexile Measure: 1080L
  • Recommended: 11 and up

by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series begins with A Game of Thrones, a gripping amalgam of intricate medieval-esque political drama between rival houses and gritty, darker fantasy. Fans of traditional, high-fantasy fare (from The Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time, and others) will note A Game of Thrones‘ departure from elements like elves and wanton wizardry, in favor of its aim towards an older readership and focus on characters and action over ambiance and setting, as we are introduced chapter-by-chapter to a diverse cast of characters with unique perspectives.

For a refreshing departure from formulaic sword-and-sorcery that is prominent in many familiar fantasy series, check out A Game of Thrones, then dive in to the rest of the series: A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and the latest installment, A Dance With Dragons!

  • Lexile Measure: (N/A)
  • Recommended: 18 and up

Other past monthly picks:

NMC Players: The Tragedy of Macbeth

In Spring 2008, NMC Players took on William Shakespeare‘s famous “Scottish Play”.

For this small production, there were several initial cuts made to the play’s original script, and a slew of oddities plagued its production (actors encountered several other strange – and deadly – occurrences shortly following performances, too; undoubtedly results of its notorious curse). Nonetheless, the students NMC‘s amateur acting troupe pulled together a solid production, building a core of enthusiasts who eventually continued with the program and spearheaded other college productions including The Crucible, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Once Upon a Mattress.

This performance of the play took place on April 12, 2008 on the upper stage in Scholar’s Hall at Northwestern Michigan College.

(Featuring Compendium creator, Mr. VanWagner, as Macbeth!)

The cast of “The Scottish Play”.

(NOTE: If a former cast member would like to contribute to this entry, please contact me!)