Gone but Not Forgotten

Article excerpt

Dinosaurs extinct? No way--they're big business! Here are seven programs that put the prehistoric facts in the hands of your students.

To a child, dinosaurs represent action and adventure, a direct link to the distant past when skyscraper-size animals dominated the earth's lush volcanic landscapes. Today, we have dinosaur lunch boxes, erasers, pencils, and much more. Parents and teachers often call on dinosaurs to show youngsters that learning is fun. Studying these prehistoric reptiles can stimulate an interest in paleontology and science, while promoting vocabulary, reading, writing, and research skills. Teachers even draw on dinosaur images when teaching math concepts such as "bigger than" and "smaller than" or arithmetic operations like adding and subtracting. Capitalizing on kids' insatiable quest for knowledge about these primeval beasts, software companies are offering an amazing assortment of programs that take young learners on fascinating scientific journeys back in time. This month, we look at seven of the best interactive dinosaur titles currently available.

DinoPark Tycoon (MECC)

DinoPark Tycoon (the only non-CD-ROM program reviewed here) is an engrossing and entertaining simulation that gives players a chance to establish and run a Dino Zoo. In the process of managing park business, youngsters can access an online database to uncover a variety of facts about 19 different dinosaurs, from the meat-eating 65-pound Coelophysis that lived during the late Triassic Period to the seven-ton carnivorous T-Rex that dominated the later Cretaceous Period. In addition to distinguishing among dinosaurs in terms of diet, climate, length, weight, and time period, entrepreneurs develop problem-solving strategies and practice math skills such as estimating, reading graphs, and forecasting.

Players are neophyte tycoons who receive bank-approved business loans to start a Dino Park. With this money, they must buy land, fences, dinosaurs, and food, and hire employees. They must also deal successfully with a number of business variables (such as park maintenance problems and unhappy employees) in order to keep the enterprise afloat. Players who are good financial managers can borrow more money to enlarge their business, while poor managers must sell off property to get back on their feet. A ledger keeps detailed records of business dealings (including ticket prices, animal inventory, employees, etc.) which kids can review regularly in order to set up a new business plan. If you want a computer program that develops an appreciation for science and the economic facts of life, DinoPark Tycoon is a great place to set up shop.

Dinosaur Discovery (Applied Optical Media)

This data-packed program takes a serious look at more than 150 dinosaurs and prehistoric animals, with detailed color illustrations, pronunciations, information screens, articles, and games. The main menu provides access to four research paths. Visitors can choose Dinosaurs to find a specific dinosaur by name; view its color illustration; and read about the animal's habitat, range, classification, diet, and size. The Bookshelf section lets users perform custom searches, locating dinosaurs by continent or site, size range, period, classification, or multiple data fields.

A third section, Topics, consists of five information options featuring an introductory essay on dinosaurs; a glossary; 24 narrated "chronicles" or slide shows on a variety of dinosaur subjects (such as extinction theories, habitat, physical characteristics, behavior, and plate tectonics); descriptions for 13 "associates" or dinosaur-related animals; and a "museum" with information on dinosaurs selected by previous visitors. An activities section contains three engaging dino-related puzzles and games.

Unlike the other titles, Dinosaur Discovery lacks video clips and animations; its many fact screens and articles can be printed, but cannot be saved to disk for use with other applications. Nevertheless, this program does contain a broad, encyclopedic database of information on dinosaurs and related animals and its several games are lots of fun.

Dinosaur Safari (Creative Multimedia)

An exciting, interactive adventure game set in the future, Dinosaur Safari sends players back in time to the Mesozoic Era in search of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. As photojournalists on assignment for the National Chronographic Society (NCS), they track down clues to determine the whereabouts of specific dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles. When they encounter a target creature, they photograph it for the society's Datazine (a high-tech electronic publication featuring pictures, movies, and information from the past). Once they have all the shots they need, they return to the future and sell their best pictures to the Society, taking care to make it back to NCS headquarters before fuel runs out.

Players earn points based on the quality of photographs they shoot, and amount of energy remaining in the time travel machine when they return. The more assignments players complete, the harder subsequent missions become. Each assignment teaches valuable information about dinosaurs, as youngsters consult online guides for help with identifying locations, time periods, and plants and animals encountered along the way.

Dinosaur Safari offers colorful screens, realistic sound effects, and especially high-quality animation, including three-dimensional recreations of dinosaur movements, physical features, and eating habits. The program contains information on 70 Mesozoic plants and 60 Mesozoic animals, and a suggested list of offline readings.

DinoSource (Westwind Media)

If you're looking for a rich source of information on dinosaurs, this interactive program supplies it with detailed data on more than 200 prehistoric creatures. Students can read interesting dinosaur facts by browsing an illustrated online database which includes vital statistics on size, diet, geographical location, time period, and more. It also features very impressive music, sound effects, and three-dimensional graphics (some of which are animated).

Program options include a narrated slide show of all dinosaurs in the database, and the ability to search for animals with specific characteristics. (Information displays cannot be printed or saved to disk, and once you generate a list of dinosaurs based on selected fields, you must manually reset the fields to their original defaults to view information screens on other dinosaurs.) In addition to the primary database, DinoSource has information screens about prehistoric time periods; bird-hipped vs. lizard-hipped dinosaurs; diet types; and a glossary of terms. A Fact or Fiction activity presents a broad essay on dinosaurs, with information on the time periods in which they lived, general misconceptions, and theories of extinction.

Two lively games draw on information presented in the database and the Fact or Fiction activities: One, Dinosaur Dilemma, invites up to three players to answer questions in a Jeopardy-like quiz format with question categories for Time & Place, Anatomy, Diet, Classification, and Mystery. And a final absorbing activity sends youngsters on a simulated dinosaur excavation where they work with authentic archeologists' tools to uncover bits of fossilized bone and other clues.

Microsoft Dinosaurs (Microsoft)

This dynamic, user-friendly program is an interactive guide to more than 80 dinosaurs and related prehistoric animals. It features over 200 articles, 1,000 high-resolution photographs, hundreds of narratives, and many special audio effects. All animal pictures can be copied to the clipboard for use with other applications, and fact screens can be printed.

Microsoft Dinosaurs lets you read about "weird" dinosaurs, find out what paleontologists do, discover how to recognize an Ankylosaurus or Triceratops, tag along on a dinosaur expedition to the Gobi desert, read "fact boxes" on dozens of animals, and much more. Screen hot spots take you to related cross-references and pop-up windows with dictionary definitions or spoken pronunciations. An index feature is also available to help you in your research.

Visitors browse by clicking topic icons on the main contents screen. An Atlas button leads to illustrations and fact screens describing how the earth's continents looked millions of years ago; a timeline provides access to Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras; and a Families path presents information on lizard-hipped and bird-hipped dinosaurs. Other options include guided tours to 16 topical areas, and six narrated dinosaur movies, with storyboards depicting prehistoric life in the oceans, a Triceratops being stalked by a Tyrannosaurus, and more. Microsoft Dinosaurs is both entertaining and informative, and has a well-designed interface that invites exploration for an interactive journey that even young children will enjoy.

Prehistoria (Grolier Electronic Publishing)

Here's a multimedia guide to more than 500 prehistoric creatures living on earth millions of years ago. The disc, which is based on the print edition of Macmillan's Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals, examines seven animal types, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, and explores several dinosaur species in depth.

Prehistoria provides six paths, each of which allows visitors to customize their research through a series of selections. The software will group animals by similarities; show a timeline for 11 featured geological eras; display video clips, slide shows, and audiovisual essays on a variety of topics (including evolution, extinction, dinosaurs, and fossil excavation); let you search using key words or phrases; and more.

Prehistoria is an amazing multimedia reference with voiced animal name pronunciations, colorful illustrations, and narrated QuickTime movies. It would benefit from stronger cross-referencing and information access abilities. (The time period chart is accessible only from within files on particular animals; the search command can be activated only through the main menu; there are no link buttons to allow users to jump easily from essays to illustrated data cards, and so forth.)

Navigation glitches aside, Prehistoria's graphically oriented database (with its drawings, photographs, video clips, articles, and audio-visual essays) is a great tool for anyone interested in learning more about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.

World of Dinosaurs (Steck-Vaughn)

This beautifully illustrated program introduces beginning readers to the topic of dinosaurs through ten interactive, non-fiction books with titles such as What Is a Dinosaur?, Putting a Dinosaur Together, and Were Dinosaurs Good Parents? The software is well-supported with printed materials, including a teacher's guide and 16-page editions of all books found on the disk.

Each electronic story is introduced by Dino, a personable, animated green dinosaur who invites viewers to answer questions, and discusses in a humorous way the scientific concepts they will encounter in the text. (Though, even after hearing each introduction once, there's no way to proceed directly to a selection without going through Dino. Once inside a book, children can listen to stories read aloud, following the text on the computer or in the printed reader. Words highlight onscreen as they are read, and dictionary definitions are available for each word. Screen hot spots lead to fact displays of statistics, page illustrations animate with realistic sound effects, and videos are available to enhance the concepts presented on some pages. At the end of each story, Dino reappears with post-reading activities to reinforce main ideas.

World of Dinosaurs also includes an activity component where kids can write their own stories and color and print dinosaur art clips. A preferences menu lets teachers customize books and track student progress. This program is a delightful reading resource for young children, and the high-interest books provide a great scientific supplement to any K-2 science (dinosaur) unit.

* Evaluator: Carol S. Holzberg, Ph.D., Shutesbury, MA, anthropologist and computer journalist, writer for several publications, computer consultant, and computer resource person at the Shutesbury Elementary School.

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