TINLEY PARK, Ill. (AP) — Katie Hadac and Nicole Sorensen squint through goggles at the instructions for their latest chemistry experiment.
Beaker with distilled water? Check.
Palm Pilot? Check.
The handheld digital organizers are as common as notebooks at Andrew High School, which started providing students with the devices this year.
Once primarily tools of business executives, personal digital assistants are fast moving into the classroom. And that is forcing principals to weigh the devices' great educational potential against a serious potential for abuse.
"It's a great tool for science," said Jack O'Donnell, a chemistry teacher at the suburban Chicago school. O'Donnell has students attach special probes to their handhelds, allowing them to transfer the probes' readings directly into the computers.
Personal digital assistants (PDAs) don't just help people organize themselves. They now obtain from the Internet everything from news to games to stock quotes. They also use infrared light to beam information among themselves, and can be coupled with wireless modems to become instant communicators.
It's those last functions that make them both intriguing and scary for educators.
Sure, teachers can save time and paper by beaming assignments to students. But those same students could use the devices to zap answers to each other or distract classmates with news that "Johnny loves Suzy."
"The beeper and phone thing — basically kids were getting calls and beepers were going off in classrooms. This is a little different because communication can take place between kids without any noise except maybe some giggles of the users," said Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Although many districts have banned cell phones and pagers, handheld computers are so new — and relatively rare outside wealthy districts — that principals are still scratching their heads over the devices, Carr said.
Palm Inc. doesn't track how many of its handhelds show up in schools, but a spokeswoman for the company said their use among schoolchildren is growing.
Jim Forbes, executive editor of the technology industry newsletter DEMOletter, said he expects more and more teenagers will get handhelds over the next few years. But because of the cost, personal digital assistants may never be as common in school as their manufacturers may hope, he added.
"Will it ever be more than 10 percent of the school districts? Probably not," he said. The cheapest handheld models retail for about $130.
Forbes said the tiny computers definitely have educational benefits; his 16-year-old daughter uses a Handspring Visor to keep track of assignments.
But he also worries that as the text-messaging craze spreads from Asia — where cell phones and pagers are used as often to trade messages as calls — students may not be able to resist wireless "chatting" in class.
Hadac and Sorensen, both 16-year-old juniors, said they use their Palms to take notes, keep track of homework assignments and store data from their chemistry labs.
"I think it's just easier because you don't have to deal with a whole bunch of equipment. You can just hook up your Palm Pilot and then it stores all of your information for you," Hadac said.
Ryan Perkins, a 17-year-old senior, said he and classmates loaded up on games and passed wireless notes when they first got the Palms.
Some of his classmates got in trouble, and a few of Andrew's teachers still won't allow the devices in class, he said.
"Beaming" notes can be as obvious as passing pieces of paper because handheld computers must be proximate to receive information, said Darrell Walery, director of technology at Consolidated High School District 230.
"Of course kids want to do it, but I think teachers are pretty good at knowing what's going on in their class," Walery said. (Unless the students are flashing instant messages back and forth with two-way pagers or modem-equipped handhelds).
District 230 started integrating handhelds into Andrew and two other high schools in Chicago's south suburbs this year. Students can rent the organizers from the school, buy them or use PDAs provided in class.
Health teachers have downloaded programs that let students weigh their physical activity against the calories they've taken in during a given day. Other teachers pass out the day's assignments by beaming them to students.
Walery said he knows of only a handful of cases in which students were disciplined for misusing their handhelds.
Other districts across the country also are trying the devices in a few classes.
Mitchell Middle School in Mitchell, S.D., got 30 free Cybikos to try out in its classes. Cybikos are specially developed for teens. They feature text messaging and have a small keyboard.
Teacher Melissa Gibson, who is using Cybikos in her journalism and computer studies classes, said that so far her students seem more attracted to the games and chat functions than to the educational features.
"You'll see them during lunch or during study halls and they'll be chatting away on their Cybikos," Gibson said.
Her classes use the organizers mainly to keep journals.
Robert McClintock, director of the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University's Teachers College, said the benefits of personal digital assistants are limited by their tiny screens.
The way of the future, he predicts, could well be a computer that students can toss in their backpack.
"Whether a school is using PDAs or any other technology at this point, it's wise that it do so without thinking that it's arrived at the complete solution to things," he said. "The technology is going to keep evolving."