NEW CASTLE, Colorado - Students in Kevin Anderle's sixth-grade science class at Riverside Middle School have a rather graphic new incentive to wash their hands more often.
As Paola Ortiz scans classmate Conner Warren's finger with a high-powered, hand-held digital microscope, the transmitted image appears on an iPad screen.
She pauses over a small cut which, magnified, looks a lot worse than it really is, dirt specks and all.
"Ewwww!" the trio of students, including Ortiz, Warren and Greg Ghan, proclaim in unison - as sixth-graders will.
The mini health lesson is just the beginning of what these students can learn through a new grant-funded instructional software program that allows students and teachers to interact in ways they couldn't before.
Wireless devices and ever-more-compact laptop computers, such as Netbooks, MacBooks, iPads, iPod Touches and various high-tech scientific gadgets are becoming more and more commonplace in K-12 classrooms across the country.
But the necessary computer software and access to online resources to help tie it all together into an organized form of classroom instruction is often the missing link, especially as many school districts deal the realities of funding shortfalls and budget cuts.
Before the start of the school year, though, the Garfield School District Re-2 was awarded two grants to help fill that gap at public schools in New Castle, Silt and Rifle.
The first was a $284,000 Garfield County Federal Mineral Lease District grant, which allowed the district to upgrade the wireless network in its elementary, middle and high school buildings.
"Our old wireless network was mostly for administrative needs and a few additional users," said Roger Gose, Re-2's director of technology. "With everything wireless now, and as we've added more mobile devices, the network couldn't keep up."
The new wireless system includes multiple access points throughout each building that are interlinked.
"Each wireless access point can support up to 30 devices, and if it gets overloaded, the next closest one picks it up," Gose explained.
Re-2 and other area school districts have also been able to use U.S. Department of Education E-Rate funding to offset the expense of the wireless upgrades. The new Re-2 system also includes wireless access that's available to the general public in each building.
Then came that critical link for Re-2 schools, a $33,000 Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (VILS) grant. The grant is being used to train teachers and provide software and other equipment to integrate mobile technology into the classroom, as yet another tool to enhance the student learning experience.
"The two grants came at the perfect time to work together," Gose said.
The timing for the new wireless network is also good, as the state of Colorado will be switching to online student proficiency assessments starting next school year, rather than administering paper tests.
At New Castle's Riverside Middle School this year, fifth- and sixth-graders are doing what seems to come naturally for kids these days.
Fewer and fewer textbooks are being used in the classroom now, especially for science and math studies. In their place, the daily lessons can instead be found online or through special software programs using mobile computer devices.
Recently, Re-2 used a portion of its textbook budget, plus local grants and other special funds, to purchase some 750 iPads to use in its middle and high schools. The smaller iPod Touches were purchased for use by elementary school students.
"We realize it's not the tool, but it is another tool we can use to provide instruction and try to meet the kids where they are in their learning," said Theresa Hamilton, Re-2's director of districtwide services.
"More and more we are looking at mobile devices and online tools, as opposed to textbook curriculum adoption," Hamilton said.
Riverside is one of just 12 schools nationwide to receive a VILS grant from the Verizon Foundation, and the only one in Colorado. The pilot program is designed to help educators use technology in the classroom more effectively.
The grant provided funding for professional development for teachers over the summer, plus equipment and software designed to help students become interested and engaged in what they're learning.
"The training focuses on how to make technology a daily part of instruction, as opposed to an add-on," Hamilton said.
In Shelley Parker's fifth-grade math class, students are using the iPads to answer true/false questions about geometry. After the question is posed and the students have time to answer, Parker turns on the classroom screen which shows the percentage of students who answered true and those who answered false.
When the correct answer is announced, the students are then asked to turn to their neighbor and explain why it was true or false.
Gose said the nice thing about the electronic quizzing is that the student who may be uncomfortable raising their hand can answer the question anonymously, then find out if they were right or wrong without being put on the spot.
"Just a few years ago we were using clickers to do the same thing, but they were kind of a one-trick pony," Gose said of the hand-held clicker devices that let students answer verbal questions from the teacher. "With the iPad, it acts as a clicker and you can do so many other things."
Back in Anderle's class, students are busy watching a video of a scientific demonstration about density on their iPads.
"We'll recreate it in class next week, but I wanted the students to see it first," Anderle said.
Following the video, the students take a short online quiz on what they've just learned. The scores are posted immediately to a database that Anderle can access on his computer. Any students who need to take the quiz again can do so during the same class time.
"Before, I'd take all the quizzes home and grade them, and it might have taken a couple of days before I could get back to an individual student," Anderle said. "Now, I have that score in an instant and I can get back to them right away."
Another advantage of administering quizzes and tests online is that students who may have reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, can be asked the questions verbally by the online instructor.
"Students can also access the same programs from their computers at home or at the library, and use it for studying," Gose said.
While some teachers required additional instruction on how to use the devices and apply the new technology based systems, the students themselves required very little training.
"It's native to them, really," Gose said of the students, who oftentimes can help the teachers through any technical glitches that come along.
"It's really created a more collaborative exchange between the students and the teachers," he said.
The iPods are stored in special mobile carts that can be wheeled between classrooms, and also keep the units charged. Unlike laptop computers that require more frequent charging, the iPods can hold a charge for up to three days, Gose said.
And, the students seem to like the new, high-tech approach to learning.
"It's fun to be able to get online and find the information," Ghan, one of the sixth-graders in Anderle's class, said. "It makes learning easier, and more fun."
Riverside Principal Lacey Moser said the combination of the two grant-funded programs are positively impacting her school, and how technology is being integrated into everyday lesson design.
But she emphasized that nothing can replace good instruction in the quest for greater student achievement.
"The number one impact in the classroom is the teacher, and these grants support our teachers and our students by adding tools to the teacher's tool box," Moser said. "Not every tool fits for every job, but the more tools you have, the higher quality and more engaging instruction you can provide."
Re-2 teachers will receive continuing professional development through webinars and support from the district's instructional technology coach, Holly Miller.
The Roaring Fork School District Re-1, which includes public schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, has also been working to increase the availability of mobile computer devices in the classroom.
Re-1 Technology Director Dave McGavok said individual schools have different fundraising efforts around improving technology in the classroom. But the district has also stepped up its efforts to purchase equipment and upgrade wireless systems districtwide, he said.
"There has been a big push since the beginning of last summer to upgrade the intensity of our wireless systems in preparation for going to online testing," McGavok said.
The district also plans to increase the number of classroom-based mobile electronic devices from 265 currently to around 1,000 by next school year.
Re-1 schools also actively endorse a "bring-your-own-device" policy, encouraging students to bring their own laptop computers, tablets and touch pads and smart phones to use in school for instruction purposes.