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Classrooms look a lot different than they did 10 or 12 years ago, as students tap their way through lessons on digital tablets, the ability to search the world’s Internet at their fingertips.

St. Mary’s public schools are working toward getting as many iPads as they can into the hands of students. Eventually, school administrators said, they would like to see a switch away from textbooks, paper and pencils to a system where every student has his or her own digital tablet for school use.

A year ago the St. Mary’s school system was awarded a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to expand its science, technology, engineering and mathematics teaching.

Touted as a “STEM for all” initiative, the grant allowed schools to begin trying out iPads in the classroom, giving both students and teachers chances to explore the digital devices’ educational functions.

Jennifer Consalvo, STEM coordinator, said the school has put 2,035 iPads in classrooms so far, with another 480 being programed now. The last of the grant money, which was spread out over three years, will buy more devices next year.

She said the actual number of iPads purchased will be fewer than initially projected because the schools opted to buy the newer models, which include features like voice recognition. Initially, school officials said the grant would pay for 3,500 of the tablets at a cost of $1.9 million, with the rest of the grant going toward professional development and to fund two new jobs.

“It is a goal that we would have a 1-to-1 ratio so students would all have that kind of access to technology,” Jeff Maher, executive director of teaching and learning, said. Equipping 18,000 public school students with iPads, which can cost $500 or more each, would have to be planned and funded over multiple years, he said. School administrators are beginning to work on a long-term plan, but Maher declined to give a timeline for when full implementation could become a reality.

“These are things we are working toward,” he said. Maher said he is aware of other public school districts that have moved to essentially paperless classrooms, instead issuing iPads to every student.

This school year St. Mary’s Ryken High School, a private Catholic school in Leonardtown, did just that when it began requiring all students to buy their own iPads as well as digital books. It has transformed the school, teachers and administrators there said.

“That would be an ideal way for students to have access to all their textbooks in one place,” Maher said, adding that it would be a “tremendous undertaking” for a large public school system.

But unlike a private school like St. Mary’s Ryken, public schools would have to supply the devices to students if they became part of the required curriculum, Maher said.

“We allow ... students to bring their own devices,” to use in class with permission from a teacher, said Regina Greely, director of learning management systems.

All St. Mary’s public schools now have wireless access available that can be linked into any tablet or smartphone with Wi-Fi.

Superintendent Michael Martirano said different schools, classrooms and students unavoidably will have access to different devices as newer technology continues to become available at a rapid pace. “Gone are the days where we’re going to give every child the same thing at the same time,” he said.

The iPads bought through the Defense Department grant will go to all of the county’s schools but two — Dynard and Mechanicsville elementary schools. Those two schools did not have a high enough percentage of students associated with the military to be eligible for the grant, Consalvo said, but the school system has outfitted each of those schools with one cart of 30 iPads purchased with other technology funds.

Essentially, every science classroom, which includes each elementary classroom, was to receive five iPads through the grant. Some schools use their own funds from grants or other sources to buy iPads and other technology tools.

In addition, Leonardtown High School has issued iPads to each of the students enrolled in the Global and International Studies program at the school.

The natural resources management program at the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center uses iPads with special waterproof coverings to take into the field to study outdoor environments.

School administrators are growing the schools’ content management system, called Moodle, that stores all of the lessons and other resources used in classrooms. The system will allow an eventual move to “paperless classrooms.”

“It’s really just hit the ground running,” Consalvo said. Right now lessons have been developed for biology and chemistry in high school. Consalvo hopes to have lessons for other science subjects in the near future.

Science teachers do have priority of using the devices. If there are some in a school not being used, they can be put to use in other subjects like English or math, she said.

“We have to prepare for a future that we don’t know what it’s going to look like,” Martirano said. He told the school board members to think back 12 years ago, when this year’s high school graduating class began school, and then look at how much classroom lessons have changed.

Computers would still be needed in schools, at least for now. The school system just a year ago moved to a computer laptop leasing program at a cost of about $1.8 million a year, in part to have enough equipment to give students new online state standardized tests that are being rolled out beginning later this year.