For students, computer program equals fresh solution to math

October 02, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Move over Ice-T, make way for Al-J.

Al-J is a new computer software character whose creators hope will soon become a household name in Baltimore high schools -- and beyond.

Behind an insistent rap beat, Al-J bursts on the computer screen and announces, "My friends and I are on a mission -- to teach you some math."

Al-J is the centerpiece of a multimedia educational software program created by a Morgan State University engineering student and faculty member to teach algebra to urban middle and high school students. He was introduced to the public last week at Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's weekly news conference.

"We use lots of rap to stimulate students and encourage their interest," said Jem Pagan, 28, a senior engineering student at Morgan and one of the program's developers.

Mr. Pagan said the idea of the program is to have students see characters they can identify with solving equations.

"The idea is that it doesn't matter what you look like or where you come from -- you can do math," he added.

In one segment shown last week, two of Al-J's friends are discussing fictional platinum record sales of an album by rap singer Queen Latifah.

"Break down the math so I can understand it," one says.

The other explains that the singer's album that went platinum -- 1 million copies sold -- was marketed in eight cities on the East Coast.

Then comes the algebra: If X is the number of albums sold per city, 8X equals 1 million and X equals 125,000.

The software is scheduled for a pilot test this fall at Southwestern High School and will be probably used at Frederick Douglass High School and possibly two other schools.

"You're competing with TV, VCRs and arcade games. It's helpful when students see math in an entertaining way," said Orrester Shaw Jr., principal of Frederick Douglass. He said it was "very likely" his school would use the program this fall, pending a final demonstration among new math department officials.

"Algebra tends to be difficult for a lot of students. With this, we've at least gotten their initial attention," he added.

Mr. Pagan and Yacob Astatke, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University and a lecturer at Morgan, set up a company, TECCO, to develop and market the software last year.

The project was an outgrowth of a National Science Foundation-funded program to encourage minority students to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Mr. Pagan said that when he went out to get software to use as part of that project, he was not impressed by what was available. "After 30 minutes, the kids would be bored with it," he said.

He developed the basis of the tutorial then and took a year off to refine it.

After working out of his basement, he moved TECCO to the South Harbor Business Incubator on Key Highway this year. The building, managed by the city's quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp., provides low-cost space for small, technologically oriented companies.

"Not only do they help us support the incubator, but they are a minority firm that is part of our high-tech efforts," Mr. Schmoke said.

Mr. Pagan said he hopes to market the software nationally beginning next summer, with a tentative retail price of about $50.

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