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Four high-school teams will be selected this week as finalists in a national computing contest in which the grand prize is a $1-million supercomputer.

"SuperQuest--The High School Supercomputing Challenge'' is being sponsored by ETA Systems Inc., a subsidiary of the Control Data Corporation.

The competition drew entries from some 1,500 teams nationwide. From that pool, 99 teams from 92 high schools in 32 states were chosen as semifinalists.

Each semifinalist team--comprising four students and a teacher--then created a software program designed to be used by a supercomputer in solving a problem proposed by the team itself.

An independent panel of scientists and educators convened by the Educational Testing Service is reviewing the projects.

Teams' ideas for employing the powerful computers--which can perform calculations thousands of times faster than a personal computer--ranged from using differential equations to analyze Lord Nelson's strategy in the Battle of Trafalgar to using finite-element analysis to analyze the acoustical properties of the cello.

The four finalist teams will present their projects this summer to a panel headed by Kenneth G. Wilson, a Nobel laureate in physics.

The winning team, to be announced Aug. 12, will have an ETA 10 Model P supercomputer installed at its school next fall. The installation will be the first of its kind at any secondary school in the world, contest organizers say.

A $6-million project underwritten by the National Science Foundation could eventually help produce a system that would allow users of different makes of computers to communicate electronically.

As part of the project, NSF program managers and more than a dozen universities are testing a prototype of an electronic editing and mail system developed at the University of Michigan. The system, called UMexpres--for "experimental research in electronic submission''--allows users to transmit text, drawings, photographs, or scientific and numerical symbols from one brand of computer to another.

"It's not our goal to produce something that's commercial-quality software,'' said Gary M. Olson, director of the University of Michigan's machine-intelligence laboratory.

But development of a similar system by computer firms, he noted, might resolve the incompatibility of hardware and software now on the market.

That problem has slowed the development of high-quality educational software for use in schools, industry observers say.

Apple Computer Inc., Apollo Computer, Digital Equipment Corp., I.B.M., and Sun Microsystems Inc. have been involved in creating the UMexpress prototype. PW

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