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Walk into the math computer lab at Langley High School in Pittsburgh, and the programs look like a bad joke. The monochrome display is about as exciting as a page of classified ads. No bells, no music. Judging from the graphs and spreadsheets, you might think these students were laboring in the workplace. Maybe at a bank.

That's precisely the idea of Lifetime Math, say the Carnegie Mellon University researchers who developed it. Instead of inserting math questions into a computer game, the Carnegie Mellon software gives them tasks ranging from choosing cellular-phone service to renting cars to equipping a basketball team with sneakers. Langley students who took the beginning algebra course were twice as likely as others to continue on to second-year algebra, says Albert T. Corbett, a cognitive scientist who helped develop the software.

''STOMPED.'' Lifetime Math is the core of Langley's curriculum in algebra and geometry--not a supplement to classroom instruction. Students work at their own pace, and they're free to ask for clues. By tracking stumbles, the program pinpoints which aspects of math a student doesn't get. The idea is to teach the process of solving complex problems--including how to present findings in a clear, persuasive manner.

The danger, of course, is that students will learn the procedures of problem-solving but not the basic knowledge. In the 1980s, several companies attempted to develop math programs emphasizing thinking skills, says Illana Weintraub, founder of MathMedia Educational Software in Northbrook, Ill. The result, she says: ''The kids got stomped on the SAT [Scholastic Assessment Test].''

But Carnegie Mellon says its program does better because it draws on two decades of research about how students learn. They've seen, for example, that students have trouble grasping very large numbers. The program accustoms them to big numbers by having them set up charts with horizontal lines at each 10,000- or 100,000-unit interval. Students who try to squeeze 1 million intervals into a chart often gape at the screen, wondering why it is solid black. Says Nora Sabelli of the National Science Foundation, which funded some of the research: ''What makes this project special is the theory behind it.'' IBM researcher Peter Fairweather calls it ''fantastic stuff.'' IBM is developing similar software.

Lifetime Math certainly seems to keep students engaged. When the bell rings to start class at Langley High, 24 students promptly log on to their Macintosh Quadra 610 workstations and go to work. Ordinarily, says their teacher, Bill Hadley, ''math is so deadly dull to most students that they shut down.'' The program is used in 46 high schools in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Pensacola, Fla. Carnegie Mellon charges a school $16,000 for as many copies of the software as it needs. Training is included. Efforts to launch the project as a private company have been slowed by the difficulty of apportioning ownership among dozens of researchers who have worked on it for more than 20 years.

At Langley, which was the guinea pig for Carnegie Mellon four years ago, students who used the program scored 100% higher than a comparable group of Algebra I students in a problem-solving test and 15% higher on a standardized exam drawn from the math SAT. The real test will come when graduates encounter algebra and geometry at work.

By Stephen Baker, with Oluwabunmi Shabi, in Pittsburgh

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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