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Design Notes

New Class of Tools for School

Improved calculators, edgy lunch boxes and adaptable binders ease the plight of students


What do students want besides easy A's and online classes they can access from their bedroom? Depending on their age, it could be a calculator that acts like a word processor, a lunch box that passes as a fashion statement, a back-saving day pack or a blank binder cover ready to be personalized.

Here's some of what's new in back-to-school tools.

Calculated Moves

The first Texas Instruments electronic hand-held calculator is older than some students' parents. Released in 1967, the original TI has since advanced into the world of microprocessors with electronically upgradeable operating systems and customized software applications.

Texas Instruments adds a new twist to technology this season with a partner for its popular TI-83 Plus, TI-89, TI-92 Plus and Voyage 2000: a keyboard that transforms the calculators into word processors, expanding their use from math, science and statistics classes to every course short of physical ed.

Students can type notes, copy, cut and paste text, then create files and download them to a PC for storage, printing or e-mailing. The system can also serve as a personal organizer, with software that enables users to keep a calendar, store addresses and create to-do lists. It has memory to hold 94 hand-held software applications, including a language translator.

The keyboard ($40) is powered by three AAA batteries and has nonskid feet. It has a cradle to prop up the hand-held for easy viewing and, at one-third the size of a traditional keyboard (with full-size keys), it fits into a day pack.

Last year, the Dallas-based company introduced the TI-83 Plus Silver Edition that dropped the dull exterior of its predecessors for a glittery translucent plastic that encases multicolored buttons. This year, there are screen covers in purple, red, green, blue, yellow and gray ($5 each).

For more information, call (800) 336-5236; educa

What's for Lunch?

Once it was only cool for the under-6 set to tote lunch boxes, but thanks in part to edgier, less cartoony designs by leading manufacturers, older students are also bringing food and beverages in insulated kits to school and after-school programs.

A leader in offering the more mature look is Outer Circle Products Ltd., which makes the Arctic Zone brand of soft-sided lunch kits. The Chicago-based company sells almost 70% of the $96-million lunch-box market that uses original designs instead of licensed images like Spider-Man or SpongeBob SquarePants, says Tiffany Moore of Outer Circle.

Many of the company's lunch kits have compression-molded plastic exteriors and insulated nylon interiors with storage compartments. New this year is the round, collapsible Twisted bag ($7) that twists open in the middle.

Nontraditional lunch-box shapes are also seen in the Messenger, which mimics a satchel with its zippered front flap and adjustable shoulder strap. It's made of washable woven polyester, dyed in camouflage, lavender and a black-and-green combination ($10). The H20, a vertical, polyester kit in navy, red and purple, has a dishwasher-safe plastic sports bottle stored in an insulated exterior pocket ($10).

Arctic Zone lunch kits are at mass-merchandiser, drug and grocery stores. For more information, call (312) 266-4000.

Easing the Load

Unlike recreational backpacks that are structured for hauling camping equipment, lightweight day packs are designed to carry a jacket, lunch and a few supplies. Students, by choice and necessity, however, cram textbooks, binders and other school supplies into daypacks.

Experts warn that because children's spines are still growing, heavy packs could cause back problems. To avoid injury, packs--regardless of their ergonomic design--should not be more than 15% of the user's weight, 10% if under 12 years old. (Some schools have banned the less-physically demanding rolling backpacks because they block aisles, and students trip over them in hallways.)

Makers of day packs have put a lot of effort into engineering products that are safer for students. Split-yoke harnesses allow for a better fit and balance, and supportive metal stays and waist belts take pressure off shoulders and put it on hips, the body's center of gravity.

JanSport has a new, lighter-weight day pack called the Pulse that makes it easier for students to plod through their school day. The pack ($140) has pressure-reducing scapula and lumbar pads filled with Gelastic gellycomb, a honeycombed rubber that was first used in hospital mattresses. A suspension system distributes the pressure to hips, and a mesh liner sends air along the shoulder straps to avoid chaffing.

For fun, a pocket on the top of the pack protects calculators, CDs or MP3 players, and has an exit port for headphones or cords.

For more information, call (800) 346-8239; www.jan

Binders Unbound

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