Give 'em a computer and they'll stump an industry pro -- once. Pupils challenged to stretch programming skills

More pupils than ever are using computers in class. Their skills are impressing some big names in the high-tech business. In the humanities, meanwhile, many students are giving short shrift to civics. One professor is tackling the problem head on. The room fell silent as he sat down in front of the computer monitor.

As the crowd filled in behind him, Steve Wozniak, creator of the personal computer and co-founder of Apple Computer Inc., was about to test a new computer game called ``Maze Masterminds.''

Mr. Wozniak was in Washington recently to congratulate a very special group of computer programmers. They design programs that aid political campaigns, create computer games, reveal the secrets of the solar system, print newsletters for civic groups, and allow a computer to synthesize human speech. These programmers are special not simply for their high-technology prowess, but because they are children, ranging from elementary to high school age.

The children here -- winners in the Third Annual Merit Computer Competition sponsored by Apple Computer Clubs International -- are but a handful of the 15 million students now using computers.

According to a national survey published in June by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools, by the spring of 1985, eight out of 10 elementary, and virtually all high schools were using computers. About 90 percent of all US schoolchildren have access to at least one computer at school.

Although many schools have computers, few have enough to go around. One computer for every 12 students would be necessary if they were to each get just 30 minutes a day. Only 7 percent of US high schools have achieved that high a ratio, and the rate drops to 3 percent for middle and 2 percent for elementary schools. Typically, schools have about one computer for every 40 students, the survey showed. Only 30 percent of elementary students use a computer during an average week, compared with only 21 percent for high school students.

The pressure for ``computer time'' is one of the reasons computer clubs, such as those represented at this year's competition, are thriving. Members get much needed after-school time and assistance. ``They are a marvelous way of using a minimum of computers for a maximum of benefit,'' says Principal magazine associate editor Carolyn Pool. ``And they are benefiting more than just the high achievers. Students with academic problems can get needed drills and practices.''

``We are on an upward curve, and we have just barely begun to see the educational possibilities. It is too early to tell how it will change the educational system. I think the teacher will always need to be there to guide, instruct, and provide the human touch,'' indicates Carl Fisher, executive editor of Classroom Computer Learning magazine.

The game Wozniak played was designed by two 10-year-olds, Jennifer Sartory and Elizabeth Dodds of Wellesley, Mass. Elizabeth says the program was ``difficult'' and required working at home and during recess at school.

Her father, Philip, who is president of his own high-tech firm, says he wasn't aware of how much Elizabeth really knew about computers until she and Jennifer won first place in the computer competition.

As for Wozniak's attempt at mastering ``Maze Masterminds,'' he did ``pretty well'' on his first try, according to the game's designers. He hit a perfect score on his second and third play. ``These kids are so far ahead of their generation even five years ago,'' Wozniak explains, ``and they are way ahead of most adults.'' Some trends in computer use by students

Between 1983 and 1985, these changes took place in US elementary and secondary schools:

The number of computers used in the classroom rose from about 250,000 to more than 1 million.

Three-quarters of the schools that had not previously used computers began to do so.

The proportion of elementary schools with five or more computers jumped from 7 percent to 54 percent.

The proportion of secondary schools with 15 or more computers rose from about 10 percent to 56 percent.

The typical computer-using secondary school went from five computers in use to 21.

The typical computer-using elementary school went from two computers in use to six. Source: Johns Hopkins University study published June 1986.

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