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!

YA Book Review: Paper Towns by John Green

You will go to the paper towns and you will never come back.

John Green. Paper Towns. New York City: Dutton Books, 2008.

“Margo always loved mysteries. And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one,” (8).

Quentin “Q” Jacobsen has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman since they were little, growing up together in a subdivision in Orlando, Florida. By the time they enter high school, things between Q and Margo have changed dramatically; she has become “that girl”—the popular one, who sets the trends, who everyone wants to be, and around whom dozens of incredibly unbelievable stories are centered—unlike Q and his group of decidedly-unpopular friends. Q and Margo are no longer the friends they used to be, and, in Q’s point of view, Margo has changed. In reality, they have both changed. Everything has changed.

“Basically,” she said, “this is going to be the best night of your life.” (30)

One night, Margo shows up at Q’s window to take him on a series of wild adventures. Q is reluctant at first, but finally agrees, after some convincing, to embark on this journey with Margo. This is when Q begins to learn who Margo Roth Spiegelman really is. Their adventure together brings them both to the same level, which has not been true since they were children. This gives Q the idea that perhaps he has a chance with her, after all; however, he returns to school the next day to find that Margo is gone, and that she has left a series of seemingly-indecipherable clues behind. These clues were not meant for just for anybody; all the clues were directed towards Q. He begins to follow this trail in hopes that it will lead him to Margo, and with every new clue, he begins to realize that Margo Roth Spiegelman may not be the girl he thought she was.

“You see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be plastic. It’s a paper town.” (57)

The idea of a paper town is something new to Q, but it is this very idea of paper towns that would begin Q’s search for Margo. This “clue” left Q with many questions: What is a paper town, and what does it mean to Margo? These are the questions Q would have answers if he ever wants to find Margo, and these are the questions that inspire Q’s quest to find her. During Q’s journey, he learns much more about life, friends, family, and memories than his past 18 years of life could ever have taught him.

The town was paper, but the memories were not.” (227)

Read Paper Towns to see what Q finds!

Recommendations for Teachers

Paper Towns is easy reading and a fun mystery for all ages, but much of it rings most true with high-school-aged teens. After all, that’s who it’s about! Getting kids to talk about the books they are reading and reflecting productively can be difficult, however–even when they like the book. Here are some suggestions for teachers to use in integrating activities and writing, and promoting discussion on the book and some of the themes in it:

  • Characters: One interesting thing about the vibrant characters in Paper Towns is that they are all so multi-faceted. Students can pick any two characters from the novel and to write about how they are similar and how they are different.
  • Identifying with characters: “You’re you,” Radar says to Quentin at one point in the book. Who are you? Is there a character in the book that you, as a reader, can best identify with? As a follow-up, try having a character assigned, or picking a character with whom you might not think you would have something in common with. It may be quite a lot more than you think by the time you finish the book.
  • Building a mystery: Ever done it? Now’s your chance. Start with an ending point – the way Margo did – and build up to it. Think of what clues you might be able to drop for people to find and follow you to where you’ll wind up, and how they might follow them? Think about people you know as characters – how might these clues be read?
  • Sex, drugs, and alcohol?: Back to the characters of the story, now. Do you feel that this story reflects teenage life pretty accurately? Crazy drinking parties, allusions to drugs, and depression? Is everybody really ‘doing it’?
  • Genre: What is genre? What genre would you feel Paper Towns best fits into? Just fiction? What about mystery? Could it be fantasy? Discuss some elements of these different genres and discuss how the book might fit into one of these genres. How do you or students feel about labeling such a multi-faceted book as any one of these things?
  • Get into reading: Maybe Paper Towns is the first book that a student has read all year, or even their first in several years. What are some other books that you as a teacher, or other students, might recommend for those who liked it, or certain parts of it? Talk about what was cool or boring about the book and see what sorts of opinions you get. It could help to pick another book to read for class, or make some suggestions for the school library!
  • Omnictionary: By now, most teenagers with internet access and a curious mind will know about Wikipedia. Having read Paper Towns, they’ll know about John Green’s Wikipedia knock-off, “Omnictionary”, referenced throughout the book. Omnictionary is now a real website that functions similarly. You might encourage students to create pages for anything on Omnictionary, or to write entries about the people and places in Paper Towns.

Paper Towns would be useful in a unit about self-identity and perceptions of others. It is also an exciting mystery and might be best used paired with an Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher which like Paper Towns is full of relevant clues and has a link to a piece of literature within the text ( Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in Paper Towns and Roderick Usher’s library in Poe). Paper Towns also involves suicide ideation and the recreating of the self many teenagers are going through as they discover who they are and Fall of the House of Usher contains mental illness and the idea of resurrection. The novel mentions teenage sexual relations, drugs and underage drinking and would probably require a letter home.

Paper Towns is appropriate for 9th to 12th graders although it might be more appropriate for 11th and 12th graders. Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s blog Wild Geese Guide has some very useful discussion questions and the Rhode Island Teen Book Award website lists useful themes. Harper Collins’ Harper Collins’website has some great suggestions for discussion questions and activities Teaching has a wealth of teacher resources. The above links also lead to a load of great teacher resources, including books talks with the author.

About John Green

John Green was born on August 24, 1997 in Indianapolis, Indiana. During his childhood he lived in many places including Michigan, Alabama, Illinois, and Orlando, Florida, the setting for Paper Towns. In 2000, he graduated from Kenyon College with a double major in English and Religious Studies. He has written five novels to date including Looking for Alaska (2005), An Abundance of Katherines (2006), Paper Towns (2008), and a collaborative novel with David Levithan entitled Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010). In addition to these works, Green has also published several short stories, as well as reviews for The New York Times’ Book Review, and other writing for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and Chicago’s Public Radio Station WBEZ. His novels have won several awards including the Michael L. Printz award in 2006 for Looking for Alaska, the Edgar Award in 2009, and the Corine Literature Prize in 2010 both for Paper Towns. Many of his novels are being considered for movie adaptations, and most have spent time on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

John Green currently resides in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife, Sarah, their son, Henry, and his West Highland Terrier, Willy. John currently runs a vlog (video blog) with his brother Hank which was called Brotherhood 2.0 and is now known as Vlogbrothers. He has yet to set a release date for his newest project tenatively titled Everything is Surrounded by Water. More information on John Green can be found on his website.


Author John Green introduces his novel, Paper Towns.

Additional Resources


YA Book Review: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

A Year Down Yonder

Richard Peck. A Year Down Yonder. Broadway, New York: Scholastic, 2000.

A Year Down Yonder is an incredibly relatable story for young readers. Everybody, at some point in their lives, matures and deals with difficult people. Like other stories of its kind, A Year Down Yonder can serve to show readers of all ages how one can adjust to new settings, make new friends, and deal with many of life’s difficulties – be they personal, petty, big, or small.

Peck tells the story of young girl from Chicago named Mary Alice who, given the country’s lingering post-depression economic troubles, is forced to leave her home and parents to live with her grandmother – a crotchety old woman with a reputation for bucking the rules.

Mary Alice starts the first day at her new school on the wrong side of class bully, Mildred Burdick, who follows her home. Grandma, however, turns the tables and Mildred soon loses interest in stirring up trouble, which later comes in October, with the name August Fluke, who tries knocking down their privy. Grandma prevents his midnight stunt with a clever trap, and at the school Halloween party, Grandma dishes up home-baked pies that she made with stolen pumpkins and pecans.

Mary Alice and her Grandma’s adventures continue year-round, from the Armistice Day Turkey Shoot, where Grandma stirs things up by making the soup affordable, and the school Christmas Pageant, when Mary Alice is set up against the snobbish Carleen Lovejoy. Tricks and pranks abound when a new boy, Royce McNabb, arrives at school in time for Carleen to develop a Valentine’s Day, but not without Mary Alice and her friend Ina-Rae playing a prank on her to get even.

That same spring, Grandma takes in an artist to pay room and board, and Mary Alice develops her own affinity for Royce. Grandma plays match-maker, she and Mary Alice survive a tornado, and the year finishes up with Royce and Mary Alice promising to exchange letters while they’re apart.

The characters and the relationships that develop and evolve throughout A Year Down Yonder are realistic and relatable while still retaining the imaginative quality and historical relevance that makes the book such a wonderful escape from modern adolescent life – much the way that Mary Alice escapes her own familiar life by spending a year down yonder.

Recommendations for Teachers

A popular argument for the adoption of more recent books to be taught in schools certainly applies to A Year Down Yonder. The book offers fresh classroom (and out-of-the-classroom) material, in contrast to giving students what is considered “classic literature”. It’s nice to have a new voice in literature that has been published in the last decade; even if it’s historic, it’s still “new”, and not just the same stuff that our parents and the parents of our students – be they current or future – read themselves, when they were younger.

Much the way that A Year Down Yonder is an imaginative and engaging story, activities in the classroom can be, with numerous ways to teach English principles for reading and writing, as well as social studies topics.

Some ideas for activities and discussion:

Book-related activities:

  • Vocabulary: For example, “What are “vittles”?”
  • Vocabulary for slang/dialectic speech: “Gaggle”, “Slack-mouthed”…
  • Journaling: Have students keep a journal of what they think of the book, or keep a periodic journal of their own life similar to the book.
  • Perspective: Have students adopt different characters’ perspectives, and have them re-do a chapter or scene.
  • Writing the next chapter: What happens next?

Theme and topic discussions:

  • Family: Do grandma and Mary Alice get along?
  • Archetypes: How are characters from the book similar to characters from other books/stories?
  • Judging: How does the book reinforce the idea to not judge people based on preconceptions?
  • Romance: Is the romance in the story similar to other stories, or important to the rest of the story?
  • Introduction: Introduce the book by asking students what sorts of situations they have been in where they have had to adapt to a new place.

About Richard Peck

Richard Peck attended College in at DePauw University in Indiana and in England at the University of Exeter. No stranger to historic and philosophical material, Peck spent some time as a “ghost writer” for sermons as a pastor’s assistant and U.S. Army Chaplain in Stuttgart, Germany. Following his tour of duty, he became a High School English teacher, an experience which he credits towards inspiring much of his work and helping him decide to become a writer. Currently, he writes full-time and has over 30 published novels.

Ever the classicist, Peck writes all his books on a typewriter, saying of his refusal to adopt technology that “it has to be a book from the first day.” An avid traveler, Peck writes both from his own experience and experiences he hears about from his readers and people whom he meets.


Richard Peck talks about his writing and what makes a book “for young readers”.

Author Richard Peck talks about his writing and what makes a book “for young readers”.

Additional Resources

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!)