Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 56 / JANUARY 1985 / PAGE 108

Sunburst Educational Software

Glenn M. Kleiman and Susan Keyes

Requirements: Atari, Apple 11 series, Commodore 64, IBM PC/PCjr, TRS-80 Color Computer, or TRS-80 Models 1/111/4. Not all the programs reviewed are available for all computers; see notes at end of review for specific system requirements. The versions reviewed here were for the Atari, but all versions are similar.

Educators are finding the search for classroom software to be time-consuming, difficult, and frustrating. There are hundreds of packages available, and publishers are expending a great deal of effort marketing them to schools. Yet teachers tell us that most of the software they see does not meet their needs.

Teachers are looking for high-quality software—software that is easy to use, holds students' interest, and helps students learn. They need software that fits into the curriculum and also expands upon what can be done with books, slides, and films. They want programs that make good use of the flexibility and interactiveness of computers.

Most schools have a very limited number of computers. Teachers therefore need programs that each child can use for a short time, or that groups of children can use together.

Since each classroom contains children with a variety of interests and abilities, teachers also need programs with several levels so students do not become frustrated with tasks that are too difficult, or bored with tasks that are too easy.

Teachers want supporting print materials that provide students with the background information necessary to make good use of their time on the computer. They also want materials that help them relate the computer program to other lessons and activities. In addition, they need reasonably priced software packages that contain a backup copy of the disk.

When we ask teachers where they find software that meets these requirements, one company, Sunburst Communications, is mentioned more than any other. Sunburst's software packages contain well-designed programs that address curriculum objectives and provide enjoyable, worthwhile activities for students. They also contain supporting print materials for both teachers and students.

Here we'll review four products that are good examples of the quality and diversity of Sunburst products. SemCalc is a math program, M-ss-ng L-nks is a language arts program, and The Factory and The Incredible Laboratory are logic/problem-solving programs.

Sunburst software is available in both classroom and home versions. Aside from packaging, the only differences are that classroom versions cost more ($55 to $95) and include a thorough teacher's guide, a backup disk, and a lifetime warranty. Home versions come with a smaller parent's guide and a 90-day warranty and retail for $39.95. However, SemCalc is not available in a home version, and the only edition of M-ss-ing L-nks for home use is "Young People's Literature."


SemCalc, which is short for Semantic Calculator, was developed by Judah Schwartz. This program helps students analyze arithmetic story problems into their critical components. The program provides the student with an onscreen "pad" to record the elements of a problem, line by line, in terms of quantity ("How many?") and kind ("Of what?"). When the student tries to add different kinds of things (for example, apples and oranges), the program responds: "Can apples be converted to oranges—or can oranges be converted to apples?" When, as in this case, the answer is no, the program asks: "Apples and oranges are both what?" The student then supplies an appropriate category. In cases where one term can be converted into the other, as with hours and minutes, the student supplies the appropriate formula for making the conversion. Similar prompts and aids are provided for multiplication and division problems.

SemCalc was designed to help students determine solutions, not simply to provide correct answers. For example, if the student enters "pollywogs" as the common category for apples and oranges, the program will indicate that 7 apples plus 8 oranges equals 15 pollywogs. If the student indicates that there are 60 hours in a minute, the program will multiply the number of minutes by 60, add this quantity to the hours, and indicate the sum as the correct answer in hours. Thus it is up to the student to specify, and therefore understand, the correct relationships among the elements of a problem.

SemCalc comes with a tutorial on disk that, though some­what repetitive, clearly describes how to use the program, and guides the student through some sample problems. The tutorial also illustrates that the program itself cannot "think," but merely responds faithfully to student input regardless of its factual accuracy. It is a valuable reminder for adults as well as children that the quality of the output is dependent on the quality of the input.

SemCalc is an interesting, useful, and unusual product. Given the difficulty many children have in extracting and organizing relevant data from story problems, it can serve as a useful tool in a variety of classroom applications.

M-ss-ng L-nks

M-ss-ng L-nks is a language arts program designed by Carol Chomsky and Judah Schwartz. It provides a series of puzzles in which the student fills in blanks to complete words in a passage. By solving these puzzles, the student develops reading and vocabulary skills while discovering patterns in the structure of language. This program is modeled on the "cloze procedure" used by many reading teachers and some standardized reading tests.

M-ss-ng L-nks is based on excerpts from written materials and comes in several editions: "Young People's Literature," "Classics, Old and New," and "MicroEncyclopedia." We reviewed the "Young People's Literature" program, which provides a selection of nine passages from each of nine books. Included are such favorites as The Wind in the Willows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A separate editor program is available for teachers, parents, or children who want to create their own texts and puzzles.

When using M-ss-ng L-nks, students first select a passage. Then they select one of the nine available puzzle formats. These range from a format with all the vowels deleted to a format with no clues at all. The options are displayed in a cleverly designed menu, in which the first five choices are shown as:

  1. Wh-ch f-rm-t d- y-- w-nt?
  2. W-i-h -o-m-t -o -o- w-n-?
  3. W-- f-----d- y-- w-?
  4. Which ------ do - want?
  5. E. --i-- -o--a- -o -ou -a--?

M-ss-ng L-nks can be used by one or two children. The players can set limits on the number of guesses allowed for each letter (from 1 to 5) and, for the two-player mode, the num­ber of guesses per turn (from 3 to 15).

We played M-ss-ng L-nks with several different passages and a variety of formats. We were pleased to discover how engaging the activity is and how much knowledge about the structure of the English language and spelling is brought to bear while completing the passages. M-ss-ng L-nks can provide many hours of enjoyable, worthwhile activity.

The Factory

The Factory, designed by Marge Kosel and Mike Fish, is one of Sunburst's most popular problem-solving programs. Within this program, factories can be created, using machines that perform three types of operations upon a square object: Punch, Rotate, and Stripe. Punch machines can be set to make one, two, or three round or square punches. Rotate machines can turn the object 45, 90, 135, or 180 degrees. Stripe machines can draw thin, medium, or thick lines. Each machine is represented by a well-designed computer illustration.

A factory can have up to eight machines in any sequence. When a factory makes an object, the computer shows a square moving through each machine in turn, as if it were on an invisible conveyor belt. Clever animation shows each machine operating on the square, thereby providing a clear picture of what is happening during each step of the process.

For example, a factory could consist of a Stripe machine, a Rotate machine set for 90 degrees, and a second Stripe machine. When this factory makes an object, first it draws a stripe, then rotates the object 90 degrees, and then draws a second stripe. When the process is completed, the finished object is displayed. The object produced by this example factory would have two stripes drawn at right angles to each other.

During the first segment of the program, " Test A Machine," students select machines one by one to see what effect each produces using each of the available options. In the second section, "Build A Factory," students make their own factories to create novel products.

In the third section, "Make A Product," students are assigned target products and asked to reproduce them by assembling appropriate sets of machines. The need to understand the effects of rotations—both the correct angle of rotation and the correct timing of a rotation—can make for very challenging problems. In fact, this aspect of the program makes The Factory one of the best exercises in spatial reason­ing that we have seen.

The Factory is well designed and very easy to use. It provides good problem-solving practice for students working individually or in small groups, and it can be used within the time limits of typical classroom situations. However, if students have time to really explore the program, they are likely to want machines that can do more things, such as a Punch machine that lets them position the hole or a Stripe machine that lets them select the color of each stripe. The addition of such options would create more diversity and add greater depth to the program.

The Factory provides a rich set of problem-solving activities. Students gain experience making deductions, sequencing operations, and discovering multiple solutions to a common goal. More than that, the program is fun. It will make a welcome addition to any school software library.

The Incredible Laboratory

The Incredible Laboratory, designed by Marge Kosel and Jay Carlson, is a problem-solving program in much the same spirit as The Factory. This program contains three levels: Novice, Apprentice, and Scientist. All levels include both a Play and a Challenge mode.

The Novice level illustrates the basic play activity. It presents a list of six chemicals. The student's task is to determine which chemical controls each of the six components of a monster: head, eyes, body, arms, legs, and feet. Students select chemicals to form a Monster, and then watch as the creature is slowly distilled from a large beaker. The resulting monsters have wonderfully funny and horrible features. Students repeatedly create monsters, systematically varying the chemical combinations until they determine the effect of each chemical.

At the Apprentice and Scientist levels, more chemicals are available, and students can ex­plore how various combinations of chemicals interact.

When the chemicals and their effects are understood, the student can select the Challenge rnode and, along with another player, create a chemical brew. The two players must then try to recognize the monster they have jointly created from three potential Monster candidates.

After the players place their votes, the real Monster is identified as the imposters melt away.

In both the Novice and Apprentice levels, chemicals always produce the same results. At the Scientist level, however, chemicals produce different effects each time that level is selected. The chemical that once produced a Frankenstein-like head may now yield furry legs, or arms with claws, or evil eyes.

The Incredible Laboratory offers delightful graphic effects with a captivating set of problem-solving tasks. However, several aspects of the program can be confusing. For example, when a chemical is left out of the Monster mix, the body part it controls is randomly supplied by the program. The program may randomly substitute the exact body part that the missing chemical would have supplied. This makes the relationship between chemicals and outcomes more obscure than it need be.

We also found the Scientist section frustrating. Though we took careful notes on the effects of each chemical during the Play mode, and then verified our observations before choosing the Challenge mode, we could never accurately predict the results of our challenge monsters. With no way to return to the Play mode, we could never refine our hypotheses or verify where the error lay—in our powers of observation or in the program. While there are several improvements we would like to see, The Incredible Lab­oratory does provide exercises that stretch the mind and results that delight the eye.

Our overall reaction to the Sunburst software we reviewed is very positive. The software packages are well-suited to classroom use and meet the criteria teachers have given for good classroom software. The programs are attractive and the activities they present are worthwhile and enjoyable.


Available for Apple II series, Atari, and TRS-80 Models I/III/4; all versions require at least 48K RAM and a disk drive. Produced in classroom versions only for $95.

M-ss-ng L-nks

Available for Apple II series, Atari, Commodore 64, IBM PC/PCjr, and TRS-80 Models 1/III/4; all versions require at least 48K RAM and a disk drive except for the IBM version, which requires 64K RAM and a disk drive. Classroom versions of all edi­tions reviewed cost $55 each.

The Factory

Available for Apple II series, Atari, Commodore 64, IBM PC/PCjr, and TRS-80 Color Computer; all versions require at least 48K RAM and a disk drive except for the Atari version (16K RAM and disk), the IBM version (64K and disk), and the Color Computer version (32K RAM and disk). Classroom versions cost $55.

The Incredible Laboratory Available for Apple II series, Atari, and Commodore 64; all versions require at least 48K RAM and a disk drive. Classroom versions cost $55.

Sunburst Communications
39 Washington Avenue
Pleasantville, NY 10570
1-800-431-1934 (toll-free)