PITTSBURGH — It's usually right after dinner when children ask the questions that strike terror in a parent's heart:
"How do you write a research paper?"
"Can you help me with my science project?"
"Do all bats have feet?"
So you scramble frantically through the encyclopedia. You visit the library, but the pickings are slim (especially the section on bat feet). Maybe it's time to try on-line.
Many children are comfortable moving in cyberspace, but that doesn't mean they're particularly adept at finding information there. The Internet is so unorganized that it can quickly become a huge time-waster. Parents can keep that from happening.
Sometimes, it's as simple as pointing out quality research sites on the Internet's World Wide Web. Two good ones are: Yahooligans (http://www.yahooligans.com), a search engine designed for children; and B.J. Pinchbeck's Homework Helper (http://tristate.pgh.net/~pinch13), a surprisingly rich index of useful research and education sites on the Internet.
But there may be times when parents feel they should offer their children more on-line resources. Here are three services that might boost a child's grades:
* Perhaps the easiest way to help children with questions is to subscribe to America Online and point them to the service's excellent site, called the Academic Assistance Center (keyword "AAC"). The center offers a variety of excellent resources. There's a knowledge database, with answers to all kinds of questions, and a phalanx of more than 1,000 volunteer teachers who answer electronic mail and staff chat rooms. Some of it is pure fluff, like the student who wrote: "Need help on 'My vision of tomorrow speech.' Need ideas for it."
But stick with it, and specific questions do get answered, even the one about which US president came up with an original proof for the Pythagorean theorem. (It was James Polk.)
True, America Online is having service problems right now because of a huge influx of new users. But if the company keeps its promise to build out its network and focus on customer service, these problems should go away. For $19.95 a month - what most companies charge for access to the Internet - America Online users get the Academic Assistance Center and a wealth of other special content, and unlimited access to the Internet.
* To boost a teen's research resources, consider subscribing to the Electric Library (http://www.elibrary.com). For $9.95 a month (plus whatever it costs you to access the Internet), a student can simultaneously search multiple encyclopedias, almanacs, complete texts of more than 3,000 works of literature, more than 500 magazines, 150 newspapers, and nearly 40,000 photos and images. That's a tool powerful enough even for an infohound like me, so it is more than adequate for the high school and college student.
"What the new medium really offers is a chance for children to become explorers," says Josh Kopelman, executive vice president of marketing for Infonautics Corporation, which runs the service. Instead of answering students' questions, on-line moderators try to guide them so they can find it themselves.
* Another for-pay service vying to help students is Scholastic Network (http://www.scholastic.com). Although parents can subscribe individually (for $199 a year), they're probably better off recommending that their school buy the service. It is designed to give teachers and students resources they couldn't get anywhere else, such as discussions with authors, interactive games in math, teacher-reviews of appropriate Web sites, and, later this month, an on-line chat with civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks.
There's a lot to recommend this service, including the forum with the zoo keeper specializing in bats (all of whom, it turns out, really do have feet).
* Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com