WESLEY CHAPEL — From a tiny classroom off the media center at Wiregrass Ranch High School came laughter, buzzy whispering and shouts of, "This is so cool!"
These 25 freshmen were the lucky ones chosen for a pilot program providing students with iPads instead of textbooks. The students picked up the devices Thursday and spent time taking pictures, exploring maps and playing with the many functions.
"It's a very big deal," 14-year-old Tom Downing said of the school's measured move into a paperless learning environment. "These are brand new technologies, and there are actually students handling them for free. I feel very gifted to be able to use this program."
Since opening in 2006, Wiregrass Ranch has been quick to adopt the latest technology for instruction. It became one of the first Pasco schools to allow students to bring laptop computers to school for note-taking and studying, and it won widespread notice when teachers encouraged students use their smartphones for classroom research.
Now it's exploring the world of electronic textbooks and tablet computing on Pasco's tab and behalf. It tapped into the district's technology funds to purchase 30 iPads and 60 applications, which chosen students will use in place of textbooks, notepads, calculators and most of their other school supplies.
"Technology is the future. It's what the kids use every day," said assistant principal Robyn White, who is overseeing the project. "We wanted to see … will it work?"
A team of teachers and administrators picked the recipients from a pool of ninth-graders who are taking at least four core courses plus the online Health Opportunities through Physical Education. Of 100 eligible students, 79 applied.
The students and their parents must report regularly on how they use the iPad outside of school and make recommendations on how the technology might better fit student needs.
"I've never felt more cutting edge than right now," said Paul Vassak, who teaches AP human geography. "We're putting away the paper and pencil and going digital."
He said students can use programs to make notes on electronic files, to write and submit homework assignments and to get instant updates to the information in their textbooks. They'll have the chance to make multimedia reports, too.
The challenge, geometry teacher Amanda Yingling said, will be to ensure that the teachers effectively use the iPads as an instruction tool. English teacher Kim Krook agreed.
"It's a means to an end. Whether it's hieroglyphics in the old days, or an iPad 2 today, we're here to get learning gains for the kids," Krook said. "Although this obviously is fun."
Nick McMillen, 14, said some of his friends who didn't get into the pilot project are jealous. He guessed the coolness factor will not wear off anytime soon.
"I think it's really good," he said of the initiative. "A lot of people can benefit from this, because it's going to make peoples' lives easier. … And I think it's fun."
Wiregrass Ranch leaders plan to share their findings with other schools, as the district looks toward achieving the state goal of a more tech-savvy academic environment by 2015. If successful this year, Wiregrass Ranch would expand the iPad program.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.