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THE MAGIC OF SCIENCE--ON CD-ROM

Hands-on projects and experiments even grab adults

I wasn't the sort of kid who liked to take things apart and put them back together again, and as an adult, I've long battled--and been defeated by--even the simplest of machines. So it filled me with childlike delight when I managed to build a digital ''workbench'' complete with 84 springs and three computer chips. Then, I tested a circuit and finally produced a sequence of flashing red lights--just as Digital Lab software promises.

The program that guided me through this is one of a handful of new CD-ROMs available for gift-giving this holiday season that tries to make science enticing to kids--and adults who'd like to brush up on certain topics. Too often, science instruction focuses on the acquisition of facts and names and in the process dulls interest in what is inherently an exciting discipline. Hands-on activities, experiments that teach scientific inquiry, and learning about great scientists all go a long way toward enlivening the subject. Each of these programs tries to do just that.

Digital Lab from Philips Media ($45; ages 8 and up), which teaches the principles of digital technology, is the most ambitious. The program's unusual feature is a small, textbook-size cardboard workbench that can be constructed in an hour or so--most likely by an adult, since it takes patience, dexterity, and force to insert all the springs and circuits properly. (All supplies, except for a 9-volt battery, come packaged in the box with the disk.) Follow the wiring instructions to construct a random number generator, for instance, or build a digital counter. The disk, while informative, is surprisingly humdrum in its presentation: The simple artwork, plain graphics, and stentorian recitation of the narrator have a dated, 1960s feel.

ON THE CASE. MECC's Science Sleuths 2 ($35; ages 10 and up) poses mysteries about a traffic accident and a picnic poisoning that kids must solve by collecting data, evaluating information, and jettisoning red herrings. There are six degrees of difficulty, making for 12 case studies, and no two cases have the same answer (though you may assume, when you see the same introductory video and some of the same documentary materials, that they do).

A light tone and a weakness for punning may appeal to some kids but bore others. What makes the program valuable is its way of insisting that the right questions be asked to obtain proper scientific evidence. A prodding and slightly sarcastic guide sends kids ''back to the lab'' if they give the wrong answer--or if they guess the right answer and don't have the ammunition to back it up. All the materials needed are available in the onscreen lab, so the program offers a virtual rather than a real hands-on experience.

Virtual experimentation can also be done in InventorLabs from Houghton Mifflin Interactive ($50; ages 10 and up), which gives a fascinating 3-D tour of the laboratories of three famous scientists: James Watt, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Alva Edison. Historically accurate and visually arresting, the interior of each lab can be viewed from any perspective, with a button that allows you to pan 360 degrees around the room's perimeter.

In InventorLabs, you can test different filaments to learn that carbonized bamboo worked best for Edison when he conducted his incandescent light bulb experiment. Or you can zoom in on Watt's steam engine and click on the ''reveal'' button to see the inside of the cylinder where the piston moves, hearing its noisy chugging all the while.

More conventional in its approach but also aesthetically appealing is the Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Space & the Universe from DK Multimedia ($40; no recommended age). As a reference tool for astronaut wannabes and amateur astronomers, this disk offers superb presentation and surprising depth of information. Video clips complement the text and still photos, and cross-referencing is extensive. One video clip offers an imagined view of the birth of the solar system, while a 3-D model of the Apollo landing craft can be rotated for better viewing.

There are a handful of quizzes and activities, but this reference disk's greatest strength is in its information and easy browsability. From the world of space to the laboratories of the past, these four disks introduce a range of science topics. By using new ways to invite children into these worlds, the disks should help pique their curiosity.

TIPS: Suggested age ranges don't fit every child, so parents should preview programs

EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN
By Karen Pennar



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PHOTO: Science Software for Kids

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