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Everything But The Bunsen Burner

Personal Business: SOFTWARE


When I was 13, I used to hang around the science lab after school. I thought science was fun--until a biology project went awry, and I ended up in the emergency room with burns on both hands.

A raft of new science-related multimedia CD-ROMs now lets curious young minds experiment all they want--without the danger of blowing up the family room. The best of the lot encourage creative solutions to tough problems, require thought, and teach scientific techniques and principles. Others, such as encyclopedias, spill over with science facts and biographies of famous scientists. And there are CD-ROM adaptations of books, made lively with music, animation, and short movies.

ON THE CASE. Science Sleuths, a new series of CD-ROM mysteries, is my current favorite. The first volume has two puzzles that can be solved at six levels of difficulty. Like a real science experiment, you start with a hunch, gleaned from the newspaper or video interviews with witnesses and experts, do a bit of reading on the subject, and gather and analyze the evidence. It takes thought, planning, and perhaps a gas chromatograph. Good thing they threw one in.

In Mystery of the Exploding Lawnmowers, I used the gas chromatograph to analyze the air in the lawn's sprinkler system. There I found thiol, which the program's encyclopedia told me was a smelly chemical added to natural gas to alert the human nose to leaks. A quick check of the gas company's schematic told me more natural gas was going into the neighborhood than the nine houses were using. So as the mower went over a sprinkler head, the heat from the engine would ignite the leaking gas. Mystery solved. (You're on your own for levels two through six.)

Almost as enticing is Widget Workshop. Using a library of mathematical, mechanical, and electrical and electronic parts, you can build your own inventions and create your own widgets to solve problems. The program also includes its own puzzles to solve. But if it's puzzles you want, a better bet is Sierra On-Line's Incredible Machine 2 ($50). It's less educational but has the same idea: You use mechanical and electric devices to construct a Rube Goldberg-like apparatus to turn on a toaster or sink an 8-ball.

There are lots of anatomy programs on the market. For older kids, I think the best is A.D.A.M.: The Inside Story. It's built around a model originally designed for medical students and reminds you of those glassine pages in textbooks that systematically dissect a human body by layers as you turn the pages. An animated storybook has Adam and Eve answering common questions, such as how a cut heals and why

a bee sting hurts. Parents can control the optional fig leaves.

Also from A.D.A.M. Software is a delightful CD-ROM, Nine Month Miracle ($40). It uses the same anatomical illustrations, but features an animated question-and-answer section for teens and adults on pregnancy, a storybook for 3- to-9-year-olds called Emily's New Sister, and games that teach, for example, rudimentary genetics.

Another new anatomy program, Virtual Body from IVI Publishing, is a bargain at $20. It's adapted from the Time-Life Science and Nature book series, with added audio and video. Similarly, Dorling-Kindersly's Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Science ($50) has the look and feel of an elegant book. But neither title has enough interactivity to engage a teenager for long. And you must work through lots of screens to get information.

ACTION PICTURES. For the junior astronomy buff, Red Shift, a two-year-old CD-ROM, is still by far the most complete program of its kind. You can visit the past, going back 15,000 years to replay animations of eclipses, for example. My only hesitation about recommending it: A new version is scheduled to come out this fall, which will have sound, animated tutorials, and more video.

By and large, these are rich, powerful programs that go well beyond the "look it up" approach of earlier educational CD-ROMs. One warning: The latest titles usually require a computer with eight megabytes of RAM. But the best are every bit as compelling as the shoot-'em-up video games that teenagers have traditionally preferred. Even better, they exercise the mind instead of the thumbs.Larry Armstrong

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