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It was many years ago, but I remember the scene well: a class of mildly terrorized teenagers being scolded by a stony-faced math teacher who might have been the model for Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. I survived the experience, but whatever I learned was through fear and intimidation rather than understanding. A different teacher would have helped. But a computer and some good math software might have made a difference, too.

No computer program can replace a good teacher, and parents shouldn't expect software to teach kids new material. But as a supplement to classroom instruction, the new math programs available for the home market do allow students to review the basics and explore mathematical concepts.

How to choose? If you've got a young child new to math, Infinity City from Headbone Interactive is appealing. It avoids the saccharine characters that populate most young kids' programs in favor of the hipper Gigglebone Gang. Zack the cabbie, Bunji the frog, Monkie-Sue, and others speed tykes through brightly colored urban venues. Be forewarned, though: The program is billed for ages 4 to 8, but a 6-year-old pal of mine pronounced it ''for little kids.''

More serious instruction, for children 5 to 12, is offered by Edmark Corp. in its new Mighty Math series of CD-ROMs. The titles for older children offer helpful ways for kids to understand fractions, probability, and geometry. Number Heroes, for instance, allows kids to shoot off fireworks in different colors and formations to illustrate fractions. Cosmic Geo-metry boasts staggeringly beautiful and highly manipulable 3-D objects. Children may construct their own problems in ''explore'' mode, and the programs allow parents to increase the degree of difficulty as new concepts are mastered.

Just getting the basics down is a problem for many kids, and the computer lets them practice multiplication and division on their own, without fear of criticism. One of the best programs for doing that is Mathblaster from Davidson & Associates, which has just come out with an updated version, Mega Mathblaster (for Windows 95), that includes a second disk with tips for parents. Some teachers disparage its ''arcade game'' drills, but many pre-teens are drawn to Mathblaster and get positive reinforcement from it. The 10-year-old girl I watched playing the game delighted in moving her space characters, enjoyed racking up points, and was pleased to get a ''certificate'' of achievement at the end of the game.

GAME SHOW. For kids who like more open-ended math games, Math Heads from Theatrix is a self-consciously cool program, designed as a series of TV contests kids play to win money and prizes. The contestants are weird, the questions wacky, and my 11-year-old friend who tried Math Heads was fixated, bopping with the music and cheering each time he answered a question correctly.

Another game that is sure to hold the kids' interest is The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis from Broderbund Software Inc. Highly original in both graphics and concept, The Logical Journey requires players to use math skills to figure out how to lead the odd yet endearing Zoombini creatures on an elaborate route to a new homeland. After spending some time with instructional programs, kids might find it fun to apply the skills they've learned in the world of the Zoombinis--and ultimately, one hopes, in the real world.

By Karen Pennar

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Updated June 16, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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