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PBS's `Square One' Gives Kids Clues To Mathematics Skills

Program's `Mathnet' segment entertains and educates with `Dragnet' parody

FOR six years now, young TV viewers have been getting a highly entertaining version of mathematics from the PBS program "Square One TV," produced by the Children's Television Workshop (CTW). An extra-large helping is offered this month with three hour-long specials of "Mathnet," the most popular of "Square One's" regular features.

The specials are scheduled on three successive Sundays: April 11, 18, and 25, at 7 p.m. (check local listings; times may vary). Each will be an extended version of one of the mysteries solved by "Mathnet's" indomitable George Frankly and Pat Tuesday, whose capers parody radio and TV's old "Dragnet" police dramas.

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The biggest mystery about "Mathnet" may be how big an impact the show has had on young viewers. It was created six years ago in response to a growing concern that children's grasp of mathematics - critical to most careers in industry and technology - was flimsy.

"Square One's" creators started with a conviction that math can be made exciting and with lots of experience in making television edifying and amusing. Joel Schneider, a mathematician and the program's content director, talks about "the creative tension between entertainment and education." Often, he said by phone, instructional value has to give way. "We need to get the audience first, if we're to have any hope of reaching our educational goals."

The show has been good at attracting an audience. It has been among PBS's top-rated children's shows in recent years. Effectiveness is harder to assess. "Square One's" producers systematically dispatch research teams to interview kids who watch the program to determine how well they understand the math concepts being explored - such as probability, estimation, set theory, or number sequences.

According to Mr. Schneider, the results of this field work have been heartening. He also mentions a formal, tightly structured test conducted among schoolchildren in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1989. None of the children had seen the show before, and all were pre-tested on math skills. After six weeks, children who had seen "Square One" every day appeared to have strengthened their problem-solving abilities and, equally important, acquired a more positive attitude toward math.

To experts in math education, attitude is critical. Andrew Gleason, former head of the mathematics department at Harvard University, says efforts to instill in children some sense that math is exciting - that there is "something of a treasure hunt behind it" - are positive. But they could fail because the culture is "so negative." He sees a tendency in the United States to brush aside students' problems with math with the comment, "They just have no talent for it," he said in a phone interview. That does n't happen in Japan, he added.

Robert Davis, a mathematician at Rutgers University who has served as an adviser to "Square One TV," worries about the gap between what he and other experts consider "real" math - solving real-life problems through mathematical reasoning - and most adults' memories of the math they were taught.

Parents' expectations revolve around multiplication tables and other rote exercises, says Professor Davis, and "Square One's" creators have to be conscious of how far they stray from those expectations.

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MATHNET'S writers, David Connell and Jim Thurman, apparently haven't felt too constrained by such concerns. "Ideas are not that difficult to come by - there's math all around," says Mr. Connell. He and Mr. Thurman recount how one of this month's "Mathnet" specials - "The Case of the Mystery Weekend" - sprang from their long-held desire to do a take-off on Agatha Christie's story, "Ten Little Indians." The trick was coming up with the math; insights into mathematical patterns proved to be just what detect ives (make that mathematicians) Frankly and Tuesday needed.

"I would have been one of those kids whom the show would have been very good for," Thurman says.

"Kids tend to be taught: `You either get the right answer right away or you quit.' " The show's aim, Thurman says, is to foster an understanding of problem solving, including the need to start over or get more information sometimes.

Production of new shows in the series has stopped, he says, but new programs dealing with math and science are being developed.

The "Mathnet" specials coincide with Math Awareness Month (April), which is proclaimed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and other groups involved in math education.