Soviet schoolchildren learn to use computers -- and zap Martians on the side

Grisha Dunndukov sits at the last terminal on the left, quietly manipulating the keys. On the screen, a procession of figures troop into a small Russian dacha (cottage).

But those two figures on the roof aren't fiddlers. What are they doing up there?

``They're fighting,'' says Grisha, grinning the slightly embarrassed grin of a 15-year-old. He explains that he got tired of typing the text of a rather dry journal -- ``Scientific and Technical Progress'' -- into a computer terminal, and so took a break to try his hand at electronic drawing.

This young man with chestnut hair is likely destined to play an important part in the Soviet Union's future -- and he knows it. He is a member of the first generation of Soviet citizens to be methodically trained in the use of computers.

``This is a new era,'' he says matter-of-factly. ``Programmers are in demand everywhere.''

The Soviet Union, in an effort to bring itself into the computer age, has introduced computer classes into the curriculum of every secondary school in the country. It has also expanded programs in which students work and study part-time at a factory or plant in order to instill the work ethic in them while still in school.

In many regions, these ambitious plans have been plagued by problems: Many of the schools don't have computers and even some of the teachers have never laid eyes on one.

And some of the work-study programs have only frustrated students because of the programs' lack of clear purpose.

But in some selected places -- like here in the Sevastopolsky district of Moscow -- educators and students are testing the potential of new Soviet education reforms, and in the process exploring new technologies and professions as well.

The centerpiece of many of the new reforms is teaching and production complexes, known as Kombinats. There are some 8,000 of them spread around the Soviet Union, with 44 in Moscow.

This one, in a converted school building, trains some 2,000 junior and senior high schoolers from 30 nearby schools. They come here every week for six hours of work in classrooms that simulate working environments, and also venture out for work in real factories and plants. Their instructors are often professionals working in industries, trades, and professions. And the students get paid for fulfilling ``contracts'' for Soviet enterprises during their school day.

``This helps them to understand the feelings of the working class,'' says the complex director, Roman Babadzhyan. ``The educational reforms put forward the task of harmonious development -- of being prepared for life and work.''

Educators here believe such centralized complexes as this one are ideally suited to the task.

In one huge classroom, young male students -- garbed in hard hats and overalls -- can be seen tooling parts on a lathe. The parts will be used at a nearby factory. In another room, however, banks of telex machines stand empty.

The students -- having already learned the operation of them here in the classroom -- are off at work in the Soviet Post Office, punching telegrams.

This Kombinat offers courses in 15 different skills, ranging from chauffeuring and house painting to computer programming. One room is even fitted out as a Soviet food store, complete with cash registers and meat display cases (filled with plastic sausages) where future sales clerks can learn their trade, away from the crush of queued-up shoppers.

This Kombinat was opened 11 years ago. But this is the first year for its newest and most intriguing class -- computer programming.

One classroom has been fitted out with 15 Hungarian-made Videotron terminals connected to a Soviet-made SM-1403 mainframe computer -- analogous to the Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-11 computer.

The instuctor, Galina Ovsyannikova, says the terminals can be used to write programs in Basic, Fortran, Cobol, Pascal, and other higher-level computer languages. As she speaks, 17 ninth-graders are sitting in front of 15 terminals doing just that.

Pavel Grodek, blond and freckled, has written a program to quiz himself about Basic. He whips through the five questions in a matter of seconds, supplying the correct answers without hesitation.

Working with computers ``is easy enough,'' he says. ``The biggest problem,'' he adds, ``is the keyboard itself'' -- with keys in both Russian and English.

In fact, even though the text of most data files is in Russian, the programs themselves are written in English -- and so are the computer ``echoes'' (responses.)

Ms. Ovsyannikova -- a former college instructor -- speaks with an easy familiarity about American computers, declaring the IBM-PC to be the best because of its construction and durability.

``The children are very eager to learn. They're very receptive,'' she says.

In some respects, the students seem not unlike their counterparts in a United States school. In fact, if the keyboard diagrams on the wall were not in Russian, this could even be a US classroom. Notably absent from the walls are the ubiquitous propaganda posters and smiling pictures of a benevolent Lenin.

The computer terminals are placed in two long rows on either side of the room. Two terminals are even reserved for playing computer games, in order to give the students a break from writing and running programs.

In one corner, two boys are using one of these recreational terminals. And Soviet government warnings against the militarization of space notwithstanding, they are cheerily zapping Martians as they flutter down the electronic screens in front of them.

``It's interesting to make a program by myself. To put it in the machine and make it work. It's creative work, not just mechanical,'' says 15-year-old Irina Frumina.

Still, it's unclear whether the Soviet government has yet fully to come to grips with the power of the knowledge that it is imparting to these youngsters.

On the floor below the computer classroom, for example, rows of girls sit at typewriters, repeatedly typing the same prepared text.

Their teacher explains that they are filling an order from a nearby factory that wanted multiple copies of a particular document.

In an age of photocopiers, it seems pointless -- until one remembers that photocopiers are tightly controlled by the government here, and not widely available, even in industry. A photocopier can be used to produce copies of underground literature. In a society that tightly controls information, that is impermissible.

But what of computers?

``My role is to teach the students, and after that they will become an important part of Soviet society,'' says Ms. Ovsyannikova.

But whether they will ever become ``hackers,'' use information exchanges and computer ``billboards,'' or churn out multiple copies of their own writings remains to be seen.

For now, the potential of the machines before them -- and the uses to which they can be put -- seems to be only just dawning on these 15-year-olds.

``In 10 years,'' says Alexei Vodovozov, ``we will not be able to imagine how we lived without them.''

``As computers develop,'' predicts Irina Frumina, tossing back her long brown hair, ``I'm sure there will be greater numbers of them and they will be of higher quality.''

``Perhaps, one day,'' she says, ``there will even be computers that can be used in the home.''

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