COMPUTING: Making the essentials exciting


Math and typing programs to keep you sitting at the computer By Jane Huth

I've never been crazy about math or typing. But I was born too soon to learn math with flashy software. And I learned to type on a manual typewriter in summer school. How much cooler, in so many ways, to learn math and typing using a computer program at home that's bouncy and fun, and lets you get up for snacks.

Here are three new-math programs and the latest version of a tried-and-true typing program to keep kids interested while they learn. Now that school's back in business, parents can steer their children toward educational software that will help them acquire essential skills.

JUMPSTART STUDY HELPERS: MATH BOOSTER, $19.99,, (800) 545-7677; grades 1-5.

Kids who don't like math will leap to their computers to start typing in homework problems with this CD-ROM, which offers lots of drill and practice in an exciting format. It's a pretty simple concept: Kids enter their homework problems in equation form, then the program uses the equations in three fast moving games. There is Galactic Pinball, DigiHog Drop and Asteroid Smash. Kids can type in one or more equations, and then play all three games using the same equations. If a player misses an answer, the program brings back the equation a few rounds later. Kids can also play the same three games using the program's equations. Players choose from addition, subtraction, multiplication or division, or fractions, percentages and decimals. Each game is offered at six levels. A reluctant math student (or even a math whiz) will have fun, and given practice, will get faster and better at solving equations. One nice aspect of this program is how upbeat it is, with bouncy music, and a cheerful announcer who offers encogement and congratulations to kids as they solve problems.

MATH MISSIONS: THE AMAZING ARCADE ADVENTURE, $19.99,, (800) 724-4718; grades 3-5.

The math I learned in school always seemed to float in some useless universe where nobody lived. Math Missions, by contrast, creates a clever, colorful world complete with quirky characters and background music that makes math seem practical and useful. The mission: Help the hapless clerks in Spectacle City's dilapidated stores sell products and make more money. Kids solve math problems in a supermarket, an electronics store, an outdoor market, a high-rise building and a sporting goods store. Players count out exact change for bus fares (which change each time they ride the bus), decipher the complicated ferry schedule and use math concepts to complete the subway route. Each time players help a clerk fix a problem (such as filling grocery orders with objects of varying weights) they earn money to open an arcade. Players buy games and other attractions and then each day, tally their money, replace games, adjust prices, or pay to fix broken games. Then, they reopen. I lost money until I raised prices (T-shirts for 25 cents were selling out). I had to replace the karaoke with a snack bar because bad singers drove customers away. My only complaint about this game is I wish there were more than one activity in each store. The math problems in this excellent program all require that kids think, but a few more problems would make the program even better.

MATH ADVANTAGE 2004, $39.99,, (310) 719-2890; grades 6-12.

For sheer volume of information, this package of nine CD-ROMs, each a separate program, is a bargain. It includes pre-algebra, algebra, algebra II, geometry, trigonometry, pre-calculus, calculus and statistics, packed with information in the form of a straightforward tutorial, an examination, a glossary, an interactive section, and the prize-a challenging game to play when kids master the subject. There are no cute characters or story, but there's a lot of information presented in an easily navigable format. If a child is having trouble understanding prime numbers or definitions of triangles, there are sections that explain. Kids who need practice solving problems can use the “Infinite Problem Generator” which creates problems. For visual learners, the graphics are simple and easy, and for kids with difficulty reading, the text is read out loud.

The other two CD-ROMs are “Pooling Around,” a business math program where players run a company that builds in-ground pools, and “Cyber-snacks,” a real-world math program where players operate a vending cart. These are colorful programs that are fun to play and use a lot of math skills, including the ability to read charts and graphs, calculate volumes and estimate costs. It works for kids who need help learning math concepts and practicing skills, as well as for kids with more math skills who want to challenge themselves.

MAVIS BEACON TEACHES TYPING 15 DELUXE, $29.99,, (800) 223-6925; ages 8 and up.

The way to strong typing skills is practice, practice, practice. With soothing background music and Mavis Beacon's calm voice, it's easy to spend hours typing away at the seemingly endless lessons here. Beginners to advanced typists can start from scratch or sharpen their skills with this program, which automatically adjusts to your level. I flashed back to my days sweating in a high school classroom when I started the typing exercises, but there's no stress or pressure when you are alone with your computer. After a few exercises, Mavis tells you to go play a game in the game arcade. I liked the speed games such as Shark Attack (I got devoured) and Road Race, where a bug splats on your window every time you make a mistake. Other games help improve accuracy and rhythm. There's a media center with videos showing proper ergonomic techniques, but the program could use a prominent warning about typing injuries, which are increasingly common. After practicing the exercises for about half an hour, my hands started feeling tired, but the program never warned me about stopping or taking breaks. Mavis Beacon is a great teacher, and kids will learn quickly if they keep at it.




Jane Huth is a writer who lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a first grader and a preschooler.



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