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Romance with a Cool Computer By James B. Dickson Teletypes such as this one lie secondary schools in eight counties to computer at Bluefield State College. BLUEFIELD - With romantic spring in the air again, the fancy of hundreds of southern West Virginia public school students are not-so-lightly turning to thoughts of computers. Computers? That's right. Computers. And both parents and teachers are happy that some serious mental efforts with electronic information storage systems now rival the traditional moonlight- and-roses for the attention of youth. How does a young man or woman smitten by the Computer Bug behave in the 22 public schools participating in the eight-county educational project in the coal- rich highlands? The love-object itself isn't exactly a raving beauty. Like most high-speed data retrieval units, its figure will never inspire poetry. Its innards are complicated and make it terribly calculating. It speaks a language all its own, called "Fortran", and seems to be hung up on math and science. Maybe you wouldn't want your sister or brother to marry one, but behold how this particular computer has youthful heads spinning . when they arouse it by phone at its site at Bluefield State College. It's sedately called the ESEA III Learning Resources Center project, but it has kids behaving in a way that many upstate educators are eager to give it a whirl themselves. Â»- According to Robert P. Perry, director of the ESEA 6m CHARLESTON. Ill project, the following has been observed: -High school and junior high school students are begging to stay after school to spend more time on clasS projects related to the telephone-teletype computer link-up. ^-Permission to skip Saturday sports and hot-rod hobbies to come back and run computer programs is a common request in Mercer, McDowell, Monroe, Raleigh, Wyoming, Summers, Fayette and Greenbrier counties. Â·Â·Students with little prior interest in sciences are turning their basements into laboratories and working overtime on serious projects. One student built a radio telescope with help from his teachers and the problem- solving computer. It led to his winning a second prize in the National Science Fair. Mrs. R. L. Refsland, an instructor at Greenbrier East High School in Lewisburg, summed up the impact of the student-computer love affair in the region: "Students come to school early, stay late after school and often return during the evening hours to work on the computer teletype. In how many areas do you find students who show such devotion -- even to the point of giving up Saturdays to work on projects, usually for pleasure?" She adde^ that in one four- month period, 301 students ran 2,414 computer programs using 2,830 hours in such subjects as physics, biology, chemistry, calculus and social studies. *Â· How can the computer network solve student problems? at such long distance? Well, if Johnnie wants to be a w e a t h e r m a n , and doesn't mind the scowls, his project might call for finding out how many rainy Mondays occurred during the past 50 years. He first must find out how many Mondays there were during that time. Johnny dials the computer from several counties away and tells it to wake up. Then, in computer code, he asks the computer via teletype to send him brief calendars of each month since 1924. These calendars already are stored in the computers math-science-brain core. Some months may have four Mondays and some five. Johnny waits for the computer to tell him it is ready to recite the 1924-74 calendars -- but he doesn't wait longer than a minute -- usually. Soon, the calendars are flashing back on the teletype and Johnny is counting the number of Mondays. If he wants to double check, the computer will do it for him. It'll give him all the data he wishes -- if his course instructors have first fed the computers' brain with essential related information. Quick as a wink, then, Johnny knows all the months which had four Mondays and which had five. His problem is half solved. If the weather reports day by day have been fed into the computer's brain, he'll get the rest of his problem solved in the same way with equal speed. In simple language, the computer is what educators call a "learning resource." The center of the telephone- teletype link-up is Bluefield and the result is the "Learning Resource Computer Network." (LRCN). But the Story of how it has gained nation-wide recognition among educators is as dramatic as the 4,600 square miles of mountainous terrain the network encompasses. When project director Perry first broached the concept of enriching the classroom experiences of rural students in remote areas with computer-assisted instruction, he was often told it wasn't possible. That was in 1967. Many told him that rural telephone lines s i m p l y couldn't perform in a teletype-to-computer hook-up. Others pointed out that there weren't available computer programming instructors in the region. Perry and his fellow dream-sharers went ahead and by 1971 convinced enough key people to give it a try. With State Department of Education ESEA III money in 1971, things began to happen fast. The phone lines weren't so feeble after all, and, by 1973, there were 40 trained computer science instructors involved in the participating public schools. Â»Â· While Perry is quick to give most o*f the credit to teachers and administrators in the eight counties for the success it has enjoyed, he is most pleased by the learning pay-off in the region's classrooms. This year, Charles McCord, a Welch High School student, won a trip to the National Science Fair with a fascinating, computerized, anti-gambling project stemming from the LRCN effort. Using a minitor similar to a television set and stacks of "odds" carefully implanted in the magnetic "brain" of the computer, he can prove how difficult it is to succeed at 21 or black-jack games. It works this way: You press a button and a n u m b e r flashes on the screen. You press again and the "dealer's" n u m b e r flashes. Now the computer flashes on the screen what the "odds" are that you'll win. Want another card? It's up to you. But when the statistically-perfect card comes, the screen will flash on a number to tell you if you're "busted." Since the ESEA III project started, more than 1,800 students have been taught computer science applications, Perry says. In addition, the region's schools have been greatly aided by permitting once-laborious scheduling and classranking chores to be streamlined by the computer network. Â»Â· What happens after the students graduate from high school? According to Perry, his follow-up studies indicate that 90 per cent of the students who've benefitted from the LRCN project are using their computer science skills in either full-time jobs or in their college studies. The success of the project recently prompted one of its early endorsers, State Superintendent Daniel B. Taylor, to say: "The State Department of Education is tremendously pleased and impressed with the results thus far. The national attention it has received from federal valida- tors of exemplary projects is wholly j u s t i f i e d , in my view." State ESEA III Administrator C. 0. Humphreys, whose initial approval of the project was essential, finds the fact that so many students are actually enjoying mathematics "extremely gratifying." Some upstate educators recently doubted that they could duplicate Perry's success in their home districts. Perry thinks they can and is urging them to try. He is quick to point out that a mini-computer costing roughly $4,600, or a computer lease- rental of $180 a month isn't too far-out, budget-wise, in most counties. In any event, many math and science teachers in West Virginia are giving it serious thought nowadays. After all, the career-long benefits from a love affair with a computer are worth considering, even if it prefers to chatter in numbers instead of "sweet nothings" to the students. In the Space Age, let's face it, it takes computers as well as love to make the world go around.