By bits and bytes, the new generation spearheads an electronic revolution
The day is officially over at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in Ridgewood, N.J., but a handful of students are still hard at work. They are "Muller's disciples," followers of a popular math teacher named Bob Muller, 30, who heads Benjamin Franklin's computer program. Oblivious to the clang of the last class bell, the disciples are hunched over their desktop computers, while long reams of paper clatter out of printers and green phosphorescent TV screens dance with ciphers and letters.
George Mamunes, 14, a gangling ninth-grader dressed in flannel shirt, blue jeans and hiking boots, knits his thick, dark eyebrows while putting the finishing touches on a computer program, already nearly 300 lines long. For those uninitiated in the special languages of the computer age, it looks like a hopeless mess of numerical gibberish. But when completed, these arcane instructions should produce a computer image of the heart detailed enough to show every major artery and vein, as well as valves and chambers. The electronic heart is part of a teaching tool George is putting together for eighth-grade biology classes.
A few feet away sits Pam Miller, 14, a ninth-grader with long, brown hair draped far down her back. She is operating a computer programor softwarethat simulates the workings of a nuclear reactor. Today she is fine-tuning the section that governs the control rods, those regulators of the reactor's nuclear fires. Tapping away at the keyboard, Pam explains: "You have to maximize the power output without destroying the reactor." Suddenly, flashing numbers burst upon the screen. "There," says Pam, her face lighting up. "Reactor overheated. Power output low. Reactor core damaged. Meltdown!" A disaster that she has brought on intentionally, just to show how it could happen.
Other disciples, seated at terminals scattered around the room, are no less absorbed. Meilin Wong, 15, chic in blue velour blouse, jeans and Bass moccasins, is trying to figure out what went wrong with her business data-management program. She is an old hand at such troubleshooting, having spent much of last semester "debugging" a program that, when printed out, stretches over 30 ft. Jim McGuire, 13, is creating a video game called Spaceship, which will let electronic star warriors zap a boxy-looking orbital intruder. A more mundane program is emerging from 15-year-old Dave McCann's terminal: a verb test for seventh-and eighth-grade Spanish classes. Off in a corner two youngsters are putting the impish face of Mad magazine's cartoon hero, Alfred E. Neuman, onto the computer screen.
Says Muller, as he presides proudly over these after-hours computer converts: "No one told them they have to be here. They're not usually doing assignments. They're experimenting. They're letting their imaginations run free."
Muller's disciples are not all math whizzes. Or straight-A students. Or particularly precocious. They are reasonably normal youngsters who have grown up with computers. For them, in ways that few people over 30 can understand, manipulating these complex machines is as natural as riding a bike, playing baseball or even solving Rubik's cube. Like thousands of others across the