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Firm's Software Helps Students Get With the Nature Program : TMM Inc. of Thousand Oaks works with schools to boost interest in environmental studies.


A Thousand Oaks high-tech firm is making environmental studies fun for children nationwide. TMM Inc.'s razzle-dazzle computer software helps teachers capture the interest of students in everything from astronomy to zoology.

One reason is that nature themes in any kind of electronic media product--from movies to video games to software for schools--are doing well in the marketplace.

Young people's interest in the way we humans interact with the planet and its creatures has propelled SEGA's video game "Eco The Dolphin" into best-sellerdom and lines are long for "Free Willy," the movie about a kid liberating an orc whale from captivity, according to Warner Bros., the distributor.

"We get calls constantly from schools," said TMM President Dan Shields at a June high-tech industry trade show in Los Angeles. One such call came from the Port Hueneme School District, which has for several years been using the latest electronic media to teach science and has become both a customer and a partner of TMM.

TMM's role in an effort like Port Hueneme's is on the technical side, enabling an expert teacher to take his or her curriculum and put it on a compact disc.

"Everything they've read or watched will become a potential multimedia application," Shields says. TMM's technology allows almost unlimited compression of scientific films, slides and data onto simple CDs. These are the same discs kids have been using in their boomboxes, but this time packed with visuals that can be played on any home or school computer. They will need an attachment though, consisting of an electronic gizmo to "read" it and play the audio track.

TMM also assists educators, whom they refer to as "developers," in getting copyright clearances so they can weave their assembled data--which sometimes even includes clips from movies like "Dancing With Wolves"--into a course of study as exciting and complex as any video game.

One of TMM's own projects, funded by a group of major science organizations including NASA and the U. S. Geological Survey, compressed a huge amount of science data onto computer discs so that kids in school could analyze--just like the professionals do--events like coastal flooding's impact on a particular area, predict its disturbance on human activities and get an idea of the costs and risks.

A study due to be released next week in Washington notes that kids taught science this way perform a whole grade level better than ones taught without the new media.

This appeals to children because learning from a school or home computer gives them much greater control over how they learn the subject. They also have control over language--currently CDs are available in English, Spanish and, in some cases, Asian languages.

Because they are far more media-savvy than most adults, children can work their way through video and audio science data, even if it is complex, as fast as the best experts can dish it out.

"It takes no time at all for the kids to get up to speed (with the computerized material)," says Dr. Joan Bissell, the UC Irvine researcher who conducted the study.

Her investigation covered a pioneering interactive TV-based science curriculum developed by an East Coast company, Optical Data, which uses a more expensive technology than TMM's. The market appeal of the TMM technology is that schools--and even individual students--can buy equally sophisticated science software for much less.

TMM, which stands for total multimedia, was founded in Thousand Oaks three years ago by an unlikely group of entrepreneurs including Randy Jackson--the youngest of the Jackson Five musical ensemble.

He explains why he thinks the mix of electronic media and science works: "Like a lot of kids, my eyes would glaze over just at the mention of 'science.' But using real scientific data brings the subject to life and makes the student part of what he or she is learning."

No more so than in the forthcoming TMM project, "A Blueprint for Survival," which allows kids to move forward in time and see the consequences of their scientific knowledge or ignorance of the planet. It is almost like playing God. And like a driver's education class, which is also interactive, it enables kids to see that, if they don't become careful operators they're in for a Big Accident.


For information about interactive science programs from TMM Inc., call 371-0500.

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