Number Munchers

For grades 3 to 6.

Apple II and Macintosh.

The ideal computer learning program is playful enough that an adult would enjoy playing it. Such a program is constructed so that you just want to keep playing. One of the most fun educational programs I've come across is a math drill called Number Munchers, by the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC). Two spin-off programs, titled Fraction Munchers and Word Munchers are also award winning material. This review will cover the Number Munchers disk, although some of the introductory comments will apply to the other disks as well.

These Muncher programs play like an arcade game. The object of the game is to go around the screen "eating" the numbers that fit the rule at the top of the screen, all the while avoiding the nasty "Troggles" that appear randomly from the sides of the screen. Your player on the screen, the number muncher, is a handsome little creature whose jaw opens and closes with the ease of a presidential candidate. To munch a particular number or word, you simply press down on the space bar.

The Troggles are not that difficult to avoid at the easier levels of the game, and they add a great deal of fun to the program. If you don't stay away from the Troggles, you could end up having one of your number munchers getting eaten. The danger here is part of the appeal. Kids will yell out, "Oh no! Another Troggle!" with a mixture of apprehension and glee.

As you complete one screen of number munching, another screen appears, with a new rule at the top of the screen. Typical rules might include, "Multiples of 3," (namely, 3,6,9,12,15,18,21...) or, "Factors of 12" (namely, 1,2,3,4, and 6). All the while the program keeps score of your number munching skills. If you score high enough, you may be invited to record your name in the Hall of Fame.

Any computer instructor can tell you that children jump at the chance of being able to add their name to the Hall of Fame of a computer program. They'll swim the Atlantic Ocean, blindfolded if necessary, if that's what it takes to get into the Hall of Fame.

But the Muncher programs provide an even more potent incentive than the Hall of Fame. After every three screens of numbers, the program rewards you with an amusing little animated cartoon. These cartoons last all of twenty second each, yet they're genuinely funny. A typical scene involves a situation pitting the number muncher hero against the Troggle villains, where the muncher always comes out on top.

But what skills do these programs develop, you might ask. The five categories of games on the Number Munchers disk are: 1) Multiples, 2) Factors, 3) Primes, 4) Equality, and, 5) Inequality. Between them, these categories cover many of the arithmetic skills studied in third, fourth, and fifth grade. The Multiples game covers the multiplication table, in an oblique sort of way. Factoring skills are always useful to develop, as they'll be called upon frequently in algebra and advanced math. Prime numbers are an intellectual curiosity, which ought to be explored, although not dwelt upon. The Equality and Inequality games are the most academic of all the games, and really get students involved in thinking about numbers.

For example, in the Equality game, the rule at the top of the screen might read, "Equal to 2." The grid on the screen would then be filled with short little expressions, including "10 / 5" and "2 X 1". These expressions would be munchable, but "5 - 2" would not, since it's not equal to 2.

What is so appealing about these games is that they require both physical as well as mental dexterity to master. Some children will find the physical dexterity aspect a little intimidating at first, especially with the menacing Troggles appearing on the screen every so often. But the Troggles are really quite slow, and can be avoided without too much effort. The program gives you a choice of using a joystick or the four arrow keys for moving the munchers. It's been my experience that the arrow keys are easier to use, and are more predictable when the going gets fast-paced.

A second grade friend of mine has conquered his fears of the Troggles, and chortles, "Who's afraid of the big bad Troggle, the big bad Troggle, the big bad Troggle," as he maneuvers his muncher around the screen. He has developed such proficiency that he can run rings around any approaching Troggle. (Of course I vehemently deny that he ever learned such childishness from me.)

So besides developing math skills, the program also gets children to think quickly under pressure. They have to keep their wits and maintain their composure if they want to develop mastery over the program. This is an important skill in itself, in our fast-paced, Troggle-filled real world.

Number Munchers is advertised as being for ages 8 to adult, but I have known many younger children who have wanted to try playing the game. Although some of the arithmetic may be beyond their present ability, I find it hard to not let them have a chance at playing the games. So I have used Number Munchers with some kindergarten and first graders, but only in a private lesson sort of setting, where I could give them personal guidance and assistance.

Number Munchers runs on any 64K Apple II, including the older Apple II+. A color monitor is not required. Fraction Munchers requires 128K of memory, meaning that it will run on an enhanced IIe, IIc, IIGS, or IIc+. (Incidentally, playing any of the Muncher games at 4 megahertz, on the IIc+, can be devilishly challenging and fun for older children.)

Versions of the Munchers games are available the Macintosh and IBM platform, too.)

To get a free catalog of other MECC software you can call MECC at 800-228-3504. Further info about MECC's educational
software can also be found on the MECC web page.

Phil Shapiro

(This software review may be reprinted and redistributed in any form for noncommercial purposes. Commercial distribution requires the author's permission. The author can be reached at: pshapiro@his.com)