"Hero I" may closely resemble a dehumidifier, but the chunky two-foot tall robot is expected to be the darling of Prince William County's schoolchildren this year.

"He'll be sent for one week at a time to all the elementary schools to teach the students about robotics," said Ben Swecker, supervisor of production. "Not that we know for sure that he's a he, yet. We just put him together this week."

Hero I is just one of the changes and new challenges Prince William county public schoolchildren will find this year, officials say. A new college-preparatory-diploma program has been started, a new elementary school is scheduled to open and more computers have been added to the classrooms, school spokeswoman Kristy Larson said.

The college preparatory diploma will be awarded to students who complete a rigorous 22-credit course of study that includes three credits each in math, science and a foreign language. Prince William is the first public school system in Northern Virginia to approve a college preparatory diploma, Larson said.

Although the program starts this year, seniors will be ineligible for the new diploma.

"We are starting with this year's juniors," Larson said. "It is too late for the seniors."

Larson said the college preparatory diploma, approved by the board of education in January, followed the recommendations of a special county task force, which reported that such a diploma will help Prince William graduates when they apply for college.

Starting with the class of 1987, students not pursuing the college preparatory diploma will need 20 credits to graduate rather than the current 18. The State Board of Education voted to raise the requirements for a general diploma to 20 credits earlier this year.

The county has added more math and science classes to its high school curriculum for students who must take such classes for the new college preparatory degree, Larson said.

Students in the middle and senior high schools also will be required to complete one written assignment a week starting this year in an effort to upgrade skills, Larson said.

Lakeview Elementary School will open Aug. 29 to students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the Lakeview community in the eastern end of the county. Larson said Lakeview Elementary is the last new school planned for the county for several years, but work on an addition to Coles Elementary school in Manassas is scheduled to begin early next year.

The operating budget for the schools this year will be $57.9 million, a 3.4 percent increase over last year's budget. The county school system is using a $20,000 federal grant to buy more computers for use in computer literacy classes.

"Students are getting used to computers," Swecker said. "We want them to get used to robots now."

Hero I was bought unassembled by the county schools for $1,499.85, Swecker said, and was assembled last week by school technicians. The robot can walk, talk and grasp things with his one arm.

"We've got the instruction booklet, and we're trying to program him so he can respond to children," Swecker said. "We've got him to say hello and goodbye."