- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

Sometimes just wanting to help leads to incredible results. Take the case of Mike Cirks and Paul Hudson, who in 1996 developed a simple baseball-based computer game to help children at a magnet school in Chicago with their math skills. The game became so successful that the pair developed a comprehensive Web site based on this type of fun learning.

Six years later, their cyber stop has consistently been one of the top-five most visited learning sites for children on the Web and has become part of a bigger, family oriented online community owned by America's largest education companies.


Site address: www.funbrain.com

Creator: FunBrain.com resides on the Learning Network (www.learningnetwork.com), which is owned by Boston-based Pearson Education. Pearson's textbook imprints include Prentice-Hall, Addison Wesley and Scott Foresman.

Creator quotable: “Learning is a lot more fun when a funky, cartoon gorilla coaches you in grammar, or when you can score home runs for correctly solving a math problem. That's the premise behind Funbrain.com, an educational Web site that links children, parents and teachers. Our initial goal was to have kids learning their multiplication tables while holding their sides laughing,” says Mr. Cirks, the site's technical director and co-founder.

Word from the Webwise: Fun Brain concentrates on teaching math, language arts, science, history, music, geography and art through 62 games easily accessed in primarily text-based menus.

Broken up into “Game Showcase,” “Numbers,” “Words,” “Universe,” “Culture” and “Extra,” the site has a little something for every student in grades three through six (with even some tougher simulations designed for the high school student).

Games come in all shapes and sizes, but common attributes include varied difficulty levels that range from typing in answers to multiple-choice questions, a tally of correct and incorrect answers, colorful characters, a link to the fantastic Web resource Fact Monster (www.factmonster.com) and correct answers revealing an image or advancing an action.

Skill sets explored can incorporate manipulating numbers, identifying like objects, reading music, working with parts of speech, learning trivia about famous events or people, and even understanding World Wide Web design language.

Dignitaries such as Salvabear Dali, Queen Nottobee, Tortisaurus and Mr. Cracker (a human with the head of a saltine) pepper the site and play hosts to numerous online activities.

For example, in a permutation of Hangman titled Stay Afloat, a player must guess letters that make a word related to a chosen topic. These areas of interest can range from dinosaurs to countries of Asia to organic chemistry.

When an incorrect letter is picked, the player gets a clue, but another piece of junk is added to his boat. An amused pelican looks on as the boat is slowly filled with junk. At any time a player may guess at the word.

An equally important part of the site can get the parent involved through either self-help quizzes about dealing with their children or some games geared toward multiple players.

Finally, a separate section for educators allows them to set up quizzes through the Web site ($30 per year for maximum test creation flexibility) that students can take online with analysis and results immediately sent to the teacher.

Ease of use: Visitors will need current browsers and occasionally the Macromedia Shockwave plug-in (although on Internet Explorer 5.0 for the Macintosh, some games kept giving me scripting error as I tried to load them). Overall, the mountains of search capabilities and diversity of disciplines make for a fairly comprehensive learning experience.

Don't miss: Although Proton Don and his Periodic Table of Elements challenge was intriguing, I jumped to the game that started it all, Math Baseball, for a quick review of my multiplication prowess.

I chose to view problems in an algebra format at the Super Brain level and quickly broke out in a sweat and fumbled for a pencil and paper to solve the numeric puzzles. Each correct answer advances the player's runner while an incorrect answer equals an out.

Family activity: Parents can quickly create a set of flash cards to help their offspring with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division with numbers up to 20. Found under the “Teachers” section, the four card sets can be printed out for an offline quiz.

Cybersitter synopsis: I am not sure younger children will have the patience to deal with the low “wow factor” associated with most of the games, even using a fast Internet connection. The allure of sites such as Nick Jr. and its familiar characters (www.nickjr.com) or Game Goo's slick presentations (www.earobics.com/gamegoo) will be too easy to gravitate toward. But the more serious students looking for a variety of skill builders will spend many an hour flexing their cerebrums.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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