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By Jeff Green Students at Farwell Middle School in Detroit are learning about germs. But they aren't just studying them in a textbook. Using a program called Cooties on a Palm handheld computer, they're beaming infrared messages back and forth to simulate contacts they might have meeting kids on the playground. After a half-dozen "meetings" among the simulated healthy and infected Palm classmates, the students check to see if they are sick. They can even trace their meetings among the other Palms to determine just when they were infected and how many other students they are infecting.
This isn't just an idle high-tech game. It's part of a concentrated effort between Palm and education partners to duplicate the success that Apple had in its early days planting its computers among school districts, says Mike Lorion, vice-president for education with Palm. Lorion ought to know. Before joining Palm, he worked on Apple's school-computer program for four years.
Palm has been working with University of Michigan Professor Elliot Soloway for five months on a demonstration program at several middle schools in the 167,000-student Detroit district. The Michigan program is one of several experiments under way across the country.
E-ENVIRONMENTALISTS. The working theory is that computers have reached about maximum concentration in the classroom. It's just not realistic to expect schools to spend $1,000 apiece to equip every student with a computer, so administrators are left with a ratio of about six students per machine at even the best schools, Soloway says. But Palm units can cost as little as $150, which makes it much more affordable to equip every student with a handheld, Soloway says.
In addition to using the Palms to simulate the spread of germs, students in Soloway's program are plotting the results of environmental studies, sharing information on research programs, and otherwise learning to collaborate with assistance from a handheld. Some students have even started using them to keep journals, Soloway says.
The Detroit students recently used their Palms to catalog an environmental survey of a local river. They plotted graphs and completed work sheets, all on the Palm. After projects are completed, they share their work and even sync with a classroom computer to get a final class tally.
In some classrooms, students who are assigned Palms are responsible for bringing them to class each day. In other settings, students rotate the handhelds and keep them at school. But so far, not one unit has been lost, Soloway says. Palm has been granting so-called Pioneer Grants, like the one in Detroit, to districts around the country, supporting 100 programs so far, according to Palm's Lorion.
FUTURE CUSTOMERS. Of course, Palm isn't just being altruistic. So far, about 13 million Palms have been sold, mostly to adults. The 53 million kindergarten through 12th-grade students, already familiar with Game Boy handheld games, represent future Palm consumers. So the company would like to get them interested as early as possible, much like Apple was able to influence generations of students and teachers with its products.
In Orland Park, Ill., outside Chicago, four high schools distributed 2,000 Palms to advanced-placement students in September. The students use the handhelds for math and science. The Palm has even replaced graphing calculators for the students. They also use it as a study planner to plot assignments and test scores. In all, about 500 applications have been written for classroom use, Lorion says. In Florida, Palm hopes to have 10,000 teachers trained to use the devices in the classroom in two years.
In the next few weeks, the company plans to roll out a program giving away one Palm for every two a district purchases, Lorion says. "We see this eventually [as leading to a situation where the Palm is] just another tool they're carrying around in their backpacks," Lorion says. If the company can reach even a fraction of those 53 million backpacks, they'll have learned Apple's lesson well. Green , a BusinessWeek correspondent based in Detroit, is crazy about handhelds. Follow his perspectives on Palm-based technologies, only on BW Online