The same whiz-bang computer magic that has compressed encyclopedias onto CD-ROM disks is about to be applied to the dusty rituals of browsing library shelves and reading jacket flaps.
An interactive program that will allow teachers, parents and youngsters to quickly find just the right children's science books among 3,000 recent titles is under development at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
"It's work that would take hours, and we can do it at lightning speed," said Dr. Wendy Saul, an associate professor of education at UMBC.
Called "Find It! Science," the colorful CD-ROM program offers far more than the bone-dry "card catalog" searches now available on library computers.
This one can produce bibliographies on a range of topics, selected by type (fiction, biography, reference, etc.), author, awards won and key words (such as volcanoes or bugs) and other criteria for children through eighth grade.
Through a search mode called "Wonders," the program is even intended to kindle the curiosity of children who come to "Find It! Science" with no idea what they want.
"We saw that some of them liked to just browse. Others needed help . . . finding an interest somewhere," said Rob Cope, a software writer with Eclipse Services, of Philadelphia, which cooperated in the design of the program.
By clicking the computer mouse on "Wonders," children can ramble through "fun facts" and quirky ideas gleaned by science teachers from many of the 3,000 books. Once the children are hooked, the program leads them to the books themselves. It's a kind of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" strategy.
Dr. Saul and Mr. Cope studied the way teachers, librarians and students look for books and attempted to devise a program adaptable to any of the research styles.
"When science people want to look for a book, they always look for the subject," Dr. Saul said. A language-oriented teacher might look for poetry books about science. Children, on the other hand, "go in and look at stuff like they're in a clothing store. They never commit until they see the cover."
The program offers extended descriptions of books, not-always-complimentary reviews, excerpts, authors' biographies and color pictures of the books' jackets -- everything you'd get prowling the aisles of a good bookstore, and more.
The user-friendly graphics and database are being developed with a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
Expected to be ready for publication this spring by Follett Software Co., "Find It! Science" is the first program of its kind. It will be marketed primarily to schools and libraries and regularly updated. Its price has not been set yet.
Helping teachers fire up the interest and enthusiasm of young children and linking science with writing and reading are central goals of the Elementary Science Integration Project, another NSF project directed by Dr. Saul.
When the teachers in that program asked Dr. Saul to help them find exciting and appropriate children's science literature, she began what she calls an "enormous detour" into software development.
"Teachers are very smart and also among the most hard-working people in the world, and they want to do a good job," Dr. Saul said recently in her office at UMBC, surrounded by crates of children's books.
But few teachers have the time to do extensive book searches.
Typically, she said, "they walk into a library . . . and they go to the card catalog and look up the subject, say, astronomy. They find a cluster of [Dewey Decimal System] numbers and pull books off that shelf and decide which are the best of the ones they have in their hands."
By contrast, trained librarians look not just under astronomy, but also for astronomy-related biographies, folk tales, creation myths, experiments and books about space technology, such as rockets and spacesuits, she said.