Studyworks: Will It Help Ace Math Or Science?

StudyWorks' software is a step forward in tackling tough high school subjects

A decade and a half has passed since personal computers began moving into classrooms and educators announced that the revolution was upon us. Yet for all the billions of dollars that have been spent on hardware and software, computers have had discouragingly little effect on education. Surprisingly, computers' impact has been felt least in high school science and math, where word processors and prowling the Internet for information don't offer much. And American kids need all the help they can get if the U.S. is to have the workforce it needs for the high-tech economy of the future.

Today, computers allow students to simulate science experiments instead of working in the lab on real apparatus. But that strikes me as a dubious benefit, since students will never learn proper lab technique by tapping a keyboard. And while more humble devices, such as graphing calculators, have had a big impact on the high school math curriculum, flexible and powerful computers have found little use beyond drill and practice for basic skills.

EQUATIONS. The increasing sophistication of software may, however, finally be winning the computer a legitimate place in secondary math and science. StudyWorks from MathSoft (617 577-1017) represents an interesting beginning. The $40 Windows program--a Macintosh version is due in September--comes in two editions, math and science. Both programs are built around a "math processor," a worksheet that provides a relatively easy way to type in the equations that word processors handle with difficulty or not at all.

That is only the beginning. StudyWorks understands math and can do everything from arithmetic to solving differential equations. It knows algebra and can factor, simplify, or perform other functions. It can produce sophisticated graphs and animations of, say, the ballistic path of a bullet.

StudyWorks surrounds the math processor with a lot of useful material. The CD-ROM offers extensive tips on both the math itself and the program's powerful but difficult techniques.

Then there's a subject-specific reference library: algebra, geometry, precalculus, calculus, and statistics in the math version; earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics in science. Algebra topics, for example, range from solving simple equations to graphing parametric curves. And you can paste any example into your own worksheet and experiment with how, for example, changing the angle of a ramp affects a ball rolling down it. Another section helps students prepare for the subject-specific SAT II exams. Like many Scholastic Assessment Test prep programs, the StudyWorks version focuses as much on test-taking techniques as it does on content. The material is solid, but this section would be helped a lot by the addition of practice exams.

HARD TO USE. If you have access to the Internet, you can use the "Collaboratory," a set of discussion groups where students and teachers can post questions, answers, hints, and ideas, all using StudyWorks worksheets. Unfortunately, the Collaboratory has been in operation only since early summer, and the scant participation so far makes it tough to judge just how useful it will be.

StudyWorks will hardly close the gap between what computers are doing and could do in math and science education. For one thing, the math processor is still way too hard to learn and use, limiting its appeal mainly to students who already have an interest in math or science. But the program is an imaginative start. And if we're lucky, other publishers will take up the baton and put software to work to improve high school math and science education.