Learning how to solve algebraic equations need not be all work and no play. Two software titles, "The Hidden Treasure of Al-Jabr" and "Standard Deviants: Algebra," bring an entertaining element to the pursuit of algebra.

'The Hidden Treasure of Al-Jabr'

The tongue-in-cheek setup of this adventure-based program sets the tone for the software. Supposedly, Al-Khwarizimi was a brilliant mathematician who lived in Baghdad in the 800s and developed a special mathematical language for solving problems. He presented his theories in a book entitled "Al-Jabr Wa'l Muqabalah" and became very wealthy. This book is the cornerstone for our study of mathematics now known as algebra.

Al-Khwarizimi hid his wealth in a pyramid. The only way into the inner sanctum of the pyramid is to answer mathematical questions. Success opens doors leading deeper and deeper into the tomb.

Students can play the software's activities in an adventure mode or explore four of the activities in practice mode. In the adventure mode, students win clues each time they successfully complete an activity. Students use the clues to uncover the treasure inside the pyramid.

There are three major activities: the Challenge of the Spheres, the Challenge of the Balances and the Challenge of the Statues. Players can choose to play these activities on three levels of difficulty. Each is found in a room deep within the pyramid. However, players can access these rooms only by unlocking a stone door decorated with hieroglyphics. To unlock a door, students must translate a word problem into an equation using numbers, operators and the hieroglyphics.

The Challenge of the Spheres teaches students about the systems of equations. Players are presented with a series of statements--in words and in numbers--about some colored spheres. For example, they may see that:

1. Two times the number of blue spheres plus four times the number of yellow spheres is 10.

2. Two times the number of blue spheres plus two times the number of yellow spheres is 8.

Students are then challenged to select the correct number of spheres that will satisfy all the statements. This activity can explore inequalities, whole numbers, percentages, ratios and multiplication.

The Challenge of the Statues has students arrange statues decorated with precious stones in order from the least valuable to the most valuable. Students must learn to translate dissimilar values of stones into a common value.

The Challenge of the Balances requires students to interpret the relationships between objects and then place these objects on balances so that they become equal.

Having successfully completed a problem from each of the three challenges, players can proceed to the treasure room to try to complete the last algebraic question and find the treasure.

The software provides many resources to help students, including clues and "Wise Words" on how to solve the problems. An Equation Tablet enables children to record information in terms of equations.

Teachers can control many of the options within the program, including the number of attempts allowed per problem and the number of problems per activity. The program comes with reproducible activity sheets. But the software does not provide record-keeping on students' achievements.

"The Hidden Treasure of Al-Jabr" has amusing graphics, an entertaining story line and excellent music--all of which create an engaging way to explore algebra. The activities are cleverly done, can be played in a short amount of time and were well liked by our kid testers.

'Standard Deviants: Algebra'

"Standard Deviants" is a PBS television show that presents academic subjects in a zany manner. Aiming to provide "education out of the box," this software extends the TV show to the computer by combining about two hours of video skits with interactive quizzes.

The video presentations combine academic lecturing with funny--sometimes hokey--skits. One of the recurring themes is a take-off of the Indiana Jones movies, only this time the star is Idaho Bones and he is after the X.

The software introduces the subject matter in three parts: algebra, functions and linear equations. "Standard Deviants" does not present individual problems for solving. Instead, it provides quizzes on the understanding of terms.

"Standard Deviants: Algebra" excels in teaching the basic concepts of algebra in an entertaining manner. Its drawbacks are that most of the presentation is not interactive--children simply watch entertaining videos--and it does not actually allow children to practice a series of algebra problems.

Additional materials--including algebra quizzes, study cards, tests and puzzles--are available online through the program.

*

Jinny Gudmundsen is editor of Choosing Children's Software magazine.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Skinny

"The Hidden Treasure of Al-Jabr"

Price: $110 (school version only)

Ages: 12 to 15

Platform: PC/Mac

System requirements: On the PC, a 486 66 with 8 MB of RAM. On the Mac, a 68040 25 with 8 MB of RAM running System 7.0.

Publisher: Sunburst

The good: Academically challenging activities

The bad: No record-keeping of achievements

Bottom line: A fun first-year algebra title

"Standard Deviants: Algebra"

Price: $30

Ages: 12 to 15

Platform: PC

System requirements: Pentium 133 MHz with 32 MB of RAM and 2 MB of available hard disk space

Publisher: Cerebellum

The good: Funny and zany videos

The bad: Very little interactivity

Bottom line: A straightforward method of teaching algebra