Some Watkins Middle School students are using an unexpected tool to improve their math skills this year.

Some Watkins Middle School students are using an unexpected tool to improve their math skills this year.

The school is piloting Project K-nect, which uses smart phones to help students with math.Verizon Wireless donated 191 LG Fathom phones to the school, Southwest Licking curriculum-instruction director Kristi Thompson said.

The district pursued a grant to fund the project but decided to participate, using $40,000 in Title I funds even after the grant proposal was turned down.

"Statistics showed 20 percent gains for students who participate in Project K-nect, so we decided to go ahead," Thompson said.

"We paired with Verizon Wireless, and they were generous enough to issue the devices."On a typical school day, teacher Greg Stone, one of a handful of teachers to use the phones in Watkins' math classes, might issue students a challenge: "Build" a snowman using a program on their phones and calculate its surface area.

"It's like a digital flipbook," Stone said. "On one page, they would draw part of the snowman and it develops an actual movie as they were doing it. At the end of it, they had to give me what the surface area of their snowman was, and then they could decorate it to finish their movie."

He connected their smart phones to his digital whiteboard, known as a SMART Board, to show off each student's video and determine whether they had calculated the correct answer.

The phones are locked down and cannot receive or make outbound calls except for 911, she said. Students could use instant messaging on the phone, but the IM program logs their chats, Stone said.

"They don't get distracted by the phones themselves," he said. "For them it's kind of normal. It's something they've had their entire lives."

When Stone is helping a student one on one, the phones keep his classroom quiet.

"I'll say, 'IM,' and they'll stop talking," he said.

Students are allowed to use the phones outside school and often use them for homework.

"A lot of times I'll have them videotape themselves solving the problem and have them put it up on the blog," Stone said. "There's literally hundreds of different applications."

Stone said the devices have been very helpful to his students and to him. Daily quizzes taken on the phones give him immediate feedback on how well the class is grasping concepts taught the day before.

"My test scores in there are much better than they were before, and my guess would be it's the devices," Stone said.

Thompson said the pilot program has been so successful that the district is applying for a different grant to help fund its expansion.

"The plan is to continue with it, especially for this group that have the phones now," Thompson said. "We've written a federal grant to continue the data package so that we can continue the project into algebra I or algebra II or wherever these students will go next year."