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Applying 'New' Math Ideals to Have Good Old-Fashioned Fun


If you're a baby boomer, you probably remember the New Math.

This educational movement of the 1960s sought to go beyond arithmetic and introduce grade school students to the heady mathematical concepts of set theory, logic and graphing. The idea was born in the post-Sputnik era when Americans--frightened by the Soviet Union's head start in the space race--made education a matter of national security.

The New Math, however, did not fare well for long. Traditionalists complained children were no longer learning basic arithmetic and the movement even became the subject of jokes. If the price of an item in a store seemed unreasonably priced, some wag was sure to say, "That must be what they mean by the New Math."

Hardy-har-har. But the very concepts educators were trying to teach with the New Math turned out to be at the heart of the digital revolution.

Some schools are once again teaching those subjects early on, although it's doubtful any of them call it the New Math. Neither does Broderbund, the software giant that has just put out a kid's CD-ROM aimed at teaching those concepts. It's the "Logical Journey of the Zoombinis," and if you have kids you might well want to take this whimsical journey.

Not only does it provide an introduction to these concepts through a variety of games, it's also a good deal of fun. And although Broderbund says it's aimed at ages 8 to 12, it can be challenging enough to keep adults entertained.

The journey begins with a quite witty, animated morality tale about the Zoombinis, a group of industrious creatures that has succeeded in making an isle a place of "fulfillment and inner peace--not to mention healthy bank accounts."

It seems a group of heavy-handed business folk, the Bloats, showed up one day and promised they would grow the Zoombinis' businesses and improve their quality of life. But those who learned the hard lessons of the 1980s can guess what happened next. Soon after being invited in, the Bloats were "steeling profits, canceling holidays and piling on homework."

The Zoombinis set out on a journey to a distant land where they can resettle, but there are many obstacles along the way. The first is the "Allergic Cliffs," a mountain pass that has two bridges.

Here's where the math (but not numbers) comes in. The little Zoombinis have four distinguishing characteristics--their hair styles, eyes, noses and modes of transportation. For example, a Zoombini might have a ponytail, spectacles, a blue nose and be on roller skates.

When they reach the cliffs, it becomes quickly apparent that Zoombinis with certain characteristics are allowed to go across one bridge but not the other. Through trial and error, you eventually figure out which bridge will allow which characteristics. But if you make too many errors, the bridges collapse, leaving some Zoombinis stranded.

It may seem like pure fun, but while figuring out how to negotiate Allergic Cliffs, you're also learning about sets. "Defining sets by what can or cannot be included is an important foundational principle in mathematics," says the game manual.

In all, there are 12 puzzles. The game is cleverly designed so that your child (or you) will want to play through them repeatedly to get all the Zoombinis to their new homeland. Each time you do the puzzles, they get harder.

Take it from me, it can be addictive. And until a national crisis gets us to take education seriously again, it can be helpful in gaining an understanding of concepts that may have once been called "new" but are very here and now.

"Logical Journey of the Zoombinis" comes on a Macintosh / Windows hybrid CD-ROM that retails for about $40.

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