BacktoSchool.com

Can you imagine how your life would change if you could plug your brain into a computer and learn any subject in a flash? Although instant cyberlearning is still science fiction, thousands of educational Web sites let you transform any Mac into an electronic schoolhouse. Alas, with so many choices, finding the best sites for learning is a tough assignment. Relax. We did your homework for you by picking 22 of the best learning sites--for kids and adults--on the Web. They're simple to navigate and pleasing to look at, and each provides strong educational value or guidance--they're even free. We've included an age range for every site, but bear in mind that they're only suggestions.

If you have a favorite educational Web site that we missed, post your suggestion in the message area that follows the online version of this article at http://www.macworld.com/2000/10/features/backtoschool.html. (To find out about learning software on CD ROM, see the sidebar "New on Disk.") But before you or your child sits down for a computerized lesson, don't forget to set limits. The sidebar "Computers in Education: Brave New World" looks at the pros and cons of computer-based learning and gives practical tips.

Exploring Science and Math

Persuading your kids to spend extra time studying math or science can be like coaxing them to eat their veggies at the dinner table. We found six Web sites packed with fascinating facts and hands-on experiments that will make kids--and adults--forget that they're learning.

By the Numbers   If your children are stymied by math, Math for Kids (ages 4 to 18; http://www.kidsmath.about.com/kids/kidsmath/mbody.htm ) offers games, articles, and links to help kids get up-to-speed fast. Site guide Nikki Katz covers everything mathematical, from addition to word problems. One of the site's best areas describes activities that children can do at the grocery store, a surefire way to keep them out of mischief and help them learn at the same time.

Children also get to practice their problem-solving skills at Brain Teasers (ages 8 to 14; http://www.eduplace.com/math/brain/index.html ). This site presents three challenging new math problems every week, arranged by grade level, along with the answers to the previous week's teasers. If your kids aren't keen on this site at first, they'll beg to have a turn solving the puzzles when they see how much fun you're having.

Science Fun   Even children who shy away from science will find something to grab their attention at BillNye.com (ages 5 to 11; http://www.nyelabs.com ), the home page of Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Although the eponymous PBS television program is no longer in production, the site includes more than 40 simple home science experiments. (This site requires Macromedia's Shockwave plug-in.)

Older children and adults should check out Scientific American Online ( http://www.sciam.com ), which showcases the current issue of Scientific American and includes an archive of articles from previous issues. "Ask the Experts" lets you send in queries about any scientific topic. You can also browse the archive for responses to questions such as "Why do we sneeze?" Even young children will learn something if you visit the site with them.

Island Expedition  This National Geographic Xpeditions interactive exhibit shows the wiles of tropical weather.

A comprehensive resource for kids interested in learning about health, KidsHealth (ages 8 to 18; http://www.kidshealth.org/kid/ ) covers all the bases, from acne to X rays. Children will love reading answers to questions such as "What is earwax?" and finding out what digestion is all about. An interactive guide lets younger kids learn about the human body by clicking on on-screen organs. KidsHealth also includes special areas for teens and parents, with advice on topics such as drugs and pregnancy. (Some areas require Macromedia's Shockwave plug-in.)

If you've ever struggled with your child's science-fair project, Science Fair Central (ages 7 to 18; www.school.discovery.com/sciencefaircentral) is the site for you. This Discovery Channel Web site has everything you need, from topic suggestions to tips on completing a project without breaking your back or your bank account.

Social Studies Online

No wonder kids roll their eyes at the mere mention of history or geography--didn't you hate memorizing all those names, places, and dates? These Web sites make historical events and world geography come alive, with adventures, pictures, and fascinating trivia.

New on Disk

Some of the best educational material is being served up on disk rather than on the Internet. Here are our top picks of programs that have come out in the past year. To see full reviews of these and many other educational programs, go to http://www.macworld.com/2000/10/reviews/education.html

GENERAL EDUCATION
35 mice  Arthur's 1st Grade, The Learning Company
35 mice  Reader Rabbit 1st Grade, The Learning Company

SCIENCE AND MATH
40 mice  Digital Frog 2, Digital Frog International
35 mice  Math Mysteries Measurements, Tom Snyder Productions

FOREIGN LANGUAGE
35 mice  Language Now 8, Transparent Language
40 mice  The Rosetta Stone 2000, Fairfield Language Technologies

SOCIAL SCIENCE
40 mice  Talking Walls: The Stories Continue, Edmark
40 mice  MWhere in the World is Carmen Sandiego? The Learning Company

Where in the World?   National Geographic Xpeditions (ages 5 to 18; http://www.nationalgeographic.com/resources/ngo/education/xpeditions/main.html ) lets kids take part in interactive geography adventures, such as exploring weather patterns on a tropical island. The stunning exhibits, which make extensive use of QuickTime VR, are all based on strict standards developed by geography educators. You'll also find helpful links to other geography resources on and off the Web.

You and your kids shouldn't miss The CIA World Fact Book Web site (ages 8 and up; http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html ). Courtesy of the helpful spies at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, this site has the lowdown on every country in the world, including some places that you've probably never heard of. If you need to know how many kilometers of oil pipeline there are in Canada, this is the place to go.

Just the Facts   Gather information about any country in the world from the CIA World Fact Book.

This Day in History   The History Net (ages 10 to 18; http://www.thehistorynet.com ) lists hundreds of articles and links about U.S. and world history. The site includes sections devoted to the U.S. Civil War and World War II. There's even a special area about the role that aviation and technology play in war and peace. Interviews, profiles, and eyewitness accounts add a personal perspective that makes historical events seem especially relevant and poignant.

BBC Online's History Site (ages 7 and up; http://www.bbc.co.uk/history ) is a portal to 27 Web sites about British and world history from the British Broadcasting Corporation. Kids will enjoy playing detective in an interactive archeology game, and you can learn how to research your family tree and coat of arms.

It's not quite as polished as some of the commercial sites, but The History Wiz (ages 8 to 18; http://www.historywiz.com ) is still too valuable to pass up. The brainchild of historian Jennifer Brainard Schneider, this site includes articles and links about various historical topics such as the French and American revolutions. The site's exhibits illustrate some of the most tragic episodes in modern world history, including the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide.

The Finer Things

Teaching children to appreciate literature and art is always a challenge, especially when you're competing against the hottest new Backstreet Boys video or computer game. From online style guides and books to virtual museums, the Web can help you get your kids hooked for life--and can broaden your own knowledge.

Literature 101   Whether you're buying a gift at the bookstore or picking up reading material for a rainy day at the library, finding the perfect book can take hours. The Children's Literature Web Site (ages 14 and up; http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~dkbrown ) can help you find books for kids of all ages. The site, which is maintained by University of Calgary Director of the Doucette Library of Teaching Resources David Brown, offers links to reviews of children's books. You'll also find links to authors on the Web and lists of children's literature awards from English-speaking countries around the world.

Never Ending Stories   Stories to Grow By (ages 6 to 12; http://www.storiestogrowby.com ) is an online library of charming short stories for children, gathered from countries around the world. Although you won't find the latest Harry Potter adventures here, the stories are all nondenominational and beautifully illustrated with children's drawings. You can browse through the collection or search for stories by type, theme, or age level. To make sure that your kids don't stay up past their bedtime, the listings include an estimate of how long each story will take to read.

English with Style   Even best-selling authors need help with grammar now and then. If you can't tell a dang-ling participle from a comma splice, check out Good Grammar, Good Style (ages 14 and up; http://www.protrainco.com/info/grammar.htm ). At this site, you'll find an extensive archive of answers to hundreds of questions about English grammar and usage. If the answer you're looking for isn't here, you can send your question by e-mail.

Whether your children are already fluent or are studying English for the first time, Language Arts for Kids (ages 7 to 18; http://www.kidslangarts.about.com/kids/kidslangarts/mbody.htm ) is crammed with helpful links and articles about the English language. Although most of the content is on other sites, the lists are comprehensive and logically organized, so it's easy to find what you need.

A Is for Art   The goal of the Cyber Playground (ages 15 and up; http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/TOC.asp ) is to bring the arts to life on the Web. This site's main attraction is its extensive list of links to art sites, where kids can take free painting classes or write folk tales with Native American elders.

American art is the focus of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art Web site (ages 7 to 18; http://www.nmaa.si.edu/referencedesk ). An interactive monthly calendar highlights artists and art-related events. Art expert Joan of Art answers kids' questions about American art by e-mail.

Resource Finders

Whether you're looking for help with your child's homework or you want to earn college credits for yourself, you'll save hours online if you know where to look. These sites can help you find all types of learning resources on the Web.

Links and More   Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, Gateway to Educational Materials (ages 13 and up; http://www.thegateway.org ) is an online database of free and commercial educational Web sites. You can search more than 10,000 entries by subject or grade level, or you can browse by subject or keyword. The listings give each site's URL, a brief description, and an age range.

If you can't find the site you're looking for at the Gateway, head over to Education World (ages 14 and up; http://www.education-world.com ), which catalogs more than 100,000 learning resources on the Internet. You'll also find helpful articles for parents, teachers, and school administrators, covering everything from educational standards to lesson plans.

Bedtime and Beyond   Stories to Grow By is an excellent source for lively stories, such as this one about an overly confident caterpillar.

Game Time   Experienced parents and teachers know that kids learn more when they're having fun. At funschool.com (ages 5 to 12; http://www.funschool.com ), children can choose from more than 300 interactive games organized by grade level. Most of the activities have a specific educational theme, such as telling time or world geography, but you'll also find a generous helping of arcade games. (The site requires a Java-enabled browser and Macromedia Flash.)

Impeccable References   If you're over 30 years old, you probably remember reaching for the family encyclopedia for those last-minute school assignments. Now your kids can do the same by visiting britannica.com (ages 8 and up; http://www.britannica.com ), the online version of the venerable reference collection. Britannica.com's search engine looks for Web sites, books, magazines, and Encyclopedia Britannica articles about any topic.

But Why?   Children get to ask questions in their own words at Ask Jeeves for Kids.

If you're tired of answering your children's endless questions, you'll be thankful for Ask Jeeves for Kids (ages 8 and up; http://www.ajkids.com ), a Web site where kids can enter questions about any topic in plain English. The results are presented in a kid-friendly format, so children will probably have an easier time using Ask Jeeves than a general-purpose search engine.

Contributing Editor Franklin N. Tessler has been writing instructional software since 1972.

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