GILLETTE, Wyo. — In the back corner of Jess Harbison's junior kindergarten classroom at Meadowlark Elementary, behind the tables of spiraled workbooks and boxes of multicolored geometric shapes, is something that many people would confuse with an arcade game.

It's called a Smart Table, and with its tabletop screen it looks faintly similar to an old Pac-Man table. Now, just add the iPad's touch-screen capabilities.

Harbison's students aren't exactly eating up dots and dodging ghosts, but the Smart Table's educational exercises aren't far off.

"All right boys and girls, we're going to count to 20 by putting the caterpillar back together," Harbison told a group of her students who had huddled around the table.

The screen reflected green on the students' faces as the body of a caterpillar appeared in puzzle pieces with numbers on them.

"I'll start with the one," said Harbison, who used her finger to slide the "1'' piece across the screen into position. "Now, let's count every one: one, two.' Sarah, can you find the two?"

Sarah Jennings spotted the "2'' piece out of 18 other digital pieces on the screen and used her finger to slide it behind the "1'' piece. No more pencil and paper for this junior kindergarten student, at least not until she switches work stations.

Harbison uses the Smart Table twice a week in rotation with other stations in her classroom. Sometimes, it's the caterpillar puzzle and sometimes the students use their fingers to trace shapes and practice writing their numbers on the screen.

"It's exciting for them when we get to use it, and it gives them a different modality. Instead of pencil and paper, they use their fingers," Harbison said. "It's a good reinforcing tool. It increases their ability to write letters, their name and their numbers."

But Harbison doesn't think her use of the table is making it harder for her students when they return to their No. 2 pencils.

The district has six Smart Tables in its junior kindergarten classrooms four to use with its mentally disabled students and it just bought two more for its Child Development Center. The tables cost about $6,100 each.

"It's up to teachers to strike a balance. It's important to introduce them to technology, but we definitely spend more time with paper and pencil," said Harbison, who has used the Smart Table since August, and so far hasn't had any technical difficulties. "But it really helps us teach the fine motor skills we need to with this age."

Information from: The Gillette News Record - Gillette,