Kids Are Excited, But Not in School

JOSEPH and BENJAMIN SMARR

February 02, 1993|By JOSEPH and BENJAMIN SMARR

Urbana, Illinois. -- Out-of-school environments are much more technologically advanced than schools. At home there are color personal computers like Macintoshes, video game systems such as Nintendos and complex television and stereo systems. Kids also go to lively video arcades. In school there are textbooks, blackboards and hand-written notebooks.

Why do kids prefer video games and computers over school? It's because of the level of interactivity. At school the teacher just tells you things that you are supposed to remember. With personal interactive software you are in charge of a rapidly changing ''virtual'' world that you alone create.

Look at a Nintendo journal. It's quite complex and colorful, with detailed maps, hints and strategies. Imagine if school textbooks were like this.

In the last two years, a whole new generation of educational software has become available on these systems, as well as on personal computers. Kids can use virtual-world games such as SimCity, SimEarth and SimAnt. In each of these complex games you have to make decisions to keep your city, planet or ant colony thriving and happy.

For example, in SimEarth you first have to build a suitable atmosphere, then start the evolution of life. During the time you are breeding life you have 16 different types of living things, each with 12 species, from single-celled bacteria to carnivorous plants.

Still other kinds of virtual-world games are played over computer networks together with many people.

Last year our school worked on a network with schools in Texas, California and Hawaii to simulate the launching and monitoring of Apollo 11. Our class got so excited about the adventure that we kept talking about it as if we really had participated in the flight.

These educational programs are not just for science. One of us (Benjy) has made about 300 computer pictures over the last two years, starting in the middle of first grade. He did all of these at home because there aren't any paint programs at school. If there were, he would use them all the time.

So how can we transfer to schools this excitement about learning? Many people say we have to get personal computers for every student before we can proceed. We think this is financially unrealistic. Personal color computers cost at least $2,000 apiece for the hardware alone. You also need software.

In contrast, video-game systems cost less than $200. This is about the right level since many parents already spend about this much for school supplies. It wouldn't be a big change for them to help schools get video systems. A school could get ten systems for the price of one personal computer.

It will take several years for schools across the nation to begin to move to the interactive style of learning. Some poor schools in the inner cities may never have the money to provide every child with a video system. However, we can get started today by using community centers to provide students with access to video systems or personal computers. Young people already come in off the street to play basketball at boys' and girls' clubs or to read books in public libraries. Why not offer computers in these places?

Computer systems keep getting cheaper, smaller and more powerful. If communities take action and teachers start introducing more interactive ways of teaching, then within five years every student could have a powerful working computer and monitor that fit into a backpack. There already are portable game systems with attachments that allow you to do basically everything that computers can do, including many educational activities.

We should capitalize on this technology. These ''powerkid'' learning devices would combine the best features of in-school and out-of-school environments.

Joseph Smarr, age 11, and his younger brother Benjy, 9, are the sons of supercomputer center director Larry Smarr. This article emerged from the brothers' E-mail messages and from Joseph's presentation before the Research Council's Coordinating Council on Education.

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