Developing math program; Hopkins: The university's CD targets middle-school students.

Johns Hopkins University researchers want to to boost middle school math achievement, and they're hoping that computers are the way to do it.

This week, the school's Institute for the Academic Achievement of Youth is scheduled to announce a $500,000 grant from the AT&T; Learning Network to develop "Descartes' Cove" - a program to help youngsters develop higher-level math skills including geometry, logic and number theory.

"A lot of students seem to lose interest in math when they reach middle school," said Luciano Corazza, the program's coordinator and director of the institute's Center for Distance Education. "We're hoping that the CD-ROM might be able to reverse that for some students."

On international math exams, American fourth graders perform above the international average ut slip below the average by eightth grade. By 12th grade, the only students they can outperform are in in Cyprus and South Africa.

The $500,000 Hopkins grant is the largest that AT&T; has made in Maryland, and company officials say it reflects what they see as an urgent need to improve students' math skills.

A study of school computer use published in September indicates that Descartes' Cove may be aimed at the best audience for educational technology. While researchers found that using computers resulted in relatively small gains in elementary school performance - and that math drills were only marginally effective - computers were more successful in teaching complex concepts to older children.

The study was conducted by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. and sponsored by the journal Education Week and the Milken Exchange on Education Technology.

The CD-ROM under development at Hopkins - with support from the Maryland State Department of Education and software publisher LearnWare LLC - is named for Rene Descartes, the 17th century mathematician and philosopher who laid the foundation for analytical geometry and other modern mathematical concepts.

"This is a very exciting program," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "It very well could become a national model."

Plenty of commercial math programs are already on the market. But Corazza said Descartes' Cove will cover subjects that mass-market software publishers don't normally touch.

For example, the institute's demonstration CD-ROM asks students to calculate the shortest distance that a spider on one side of a cube has to travel to reach a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich on the opposite corner. The three-dimensional display shows students how to analyze the problem and then reach into a "formula bin" to do their calculations.

With Internet connections, students at different schools will be able to compete against each other and seek assistance from others.

"The goal is to inspire students by showing them math in a different way," Corazza said. "We don't expect it will be the 'magic bullet,' and it won't replace the teacher. But we think it can be a valuable tool in the classroom and at home to reinforce what students learn."

By next school year, the developers hope to test the program in a half-dozen middle schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, Corazza said. The final version will be used in all Maryland middle schools by the 2000-2001 school year and may be distributed nationally.

Grasmick said she hopes the program will also help narrow the lingering gap in math and science achievement between boys and girls and between white students and black students.

"I still believe, despite some of the national studies, that women and minorities are systematically discouraged from pursuing high-level math courses," Grasmick said. "I hope that this program will be so much fun that females and minorities will be engaged."

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