RICHMOND, CALIF. — CEDRICK WASHINGTON and a small group of other 11-year-olds stare intently at a computer screen as a giant green snake goddess kidnaps a young boy.
Cedrick manipulates the computer mouse to defeat the snake and find the boy. But this is no video-game arcade; it's a Spanish class in an inner-city school near San Francisco.
Cedrick is playing with an innovative, interactive computer program designed to teach Spanish to fifth graders. The snake goddess and all the other characters speak Spanish, and their lines simultaneously appear on the screen as Spanish subtitles.
The snake goddess looks as if it came out of a George Lucas ``Indiana Jones'' film - hardly a coincidence since Mr. Lucas's company developed the software.
``Indiana Jones is one of my favorite movies,'' Cedrick says. ``The game is like watching one of his adventures.''
For the past four years, Lucas Arts and Entertainment has been working with schools and other institutions to develop educational computer software.
Sue Susserman, a spokeswoman for the company, says Lucas has two passions in life: films and education. The software programs allow Lucas ``to bring his film heritage and resources'' to the classroom,'' she says.
Sherilyn Rawson teaches Cedrick and other eager fifth graders at Stege Elementary School here in Richmond, Calif. The 29-year-old PhD candidate works in this experimental program using personal computers, video cameras, and TV monitors to teach Spanish.
The Lucas software program ``Night of the Living Statues'' is being tested in her classroom before general release to other schools.
``It's the most popular program we have,'' Ms. Rawson says. ``You can always tell when Mertseger the snake goddess comes out; that part of the classroom explodes in noise.'' She says the program's adventure format grabs student attention, but will need more fine-tuning before release. The vocabulary is too sophisticated, she says, and its audiovisual dictionary needs expanding.
Rawson is also concerned that financially strapped United States schools won't be able to afford the hardware and software needed for this kind of program. But Casey Donahue, Lucas Arts and Entertainment associate producer, says many states are putting money into educational technology, even while cutting back elsewhere.
States such as California, Florida, and Texas ``feel one of the best ways to get kids interested in education is to keep schools up to speed on computers and programs,'' Ms. Donahue says. ``Software with entertainment value keeps the kids interested.''
But it takes more than entertainment value to teach Spanish, Rawson says. Her class uses an innovative classroom structure. She sits with a group of eight students at the center of the class, teaching the Spanish words for articles of clothing.
The remaining members of the class learn at various workstations around the classroom, without any assistance from the teacher.
Three students sit in front of a TV monitor that flashes still pictures of classmates pointing to various pieces of clothing. They must write down the correct word in Spanish.
Other students stare at computers that show a picture of shoes. With a click of the mouse, the computer then simultaneously speaks the word zapatos and flashes it on the screen. Students can then pronounce the word into a microphone for further reinforcement.
Using this method, ``kids have more control over their learning pace and environment,'' Rawson says.
The students appear to enjoy the class, judging from their concentration on the high-tech equipment. Krystal Crews took Spanish last year, but she likes the new class far better.
``Last year all we had was dirty tables and a chalk board,'' she says, crinkling up her nose. ``We didn't even have a carpet. This year we have computers and a TV. It's more fun.``