Editor’s note: Tom Rogers is a science teacher at Southside High School in Greenville, S.C. This blog is reprinted with permission of Innoventure, where it was first published.

GREENVILLE, S.C. – I remember the first time I saw it, I knew I had to have one. It was two years ago in San Jose and I was there chaperoning two of my students at the INTEL International Science Fair. One of my former students, Greg Grothause, had contacted me and asked if I’d like a tour of the Google facility, his employer. How could I resist.

Of course the tour was amazing but the most amazing part came when Greg displayed a small device with a glowing display screen. I marveled at its resolution and after learning it was programmable in a version of Java (the programming language I teach in AP Computer Science) I asked if I could get some for my students.

As a high school teacher with very little funding, I’m accustom to begging without getting results, so imagine my joy when a few weeks later Greg sent me a few Android phones. Of course they were obsolete by rapidly changing smart-phone standards, but nonetheless usable. I couldn’t wait to show them to my students.

Since I’m responsible for six different courses with only five periods available for teaching, my AP and IB Computer Science classes, meet in the same room at the same time. AP is the first year and IB the second (and sometimes third) year of computer science offered at my school. While having multiple levels in the room at once sounds impossible, it actually works because the IB Comp Sci students are few in number and highly motivated. However, while I formally teach the newbie AP students, I primarily act as a mentor or supervisor for the IB ones.

I walked into computer science class, gathered my IB students, handed them the Android phones, and said, “here are some cool toys that are programmable in Java. See what you can do with them.” They collaborated together, with help from internet resources, and almost immediately started producing results. This led to various open-ended phone-programming assignments and award-winning science fair projects.

The situation began to take on the feeling of an entrepreneurial venture, albeit without a profit potential. Since the phones contained numerous sensors that could be used in science classes, we decided to focus on producing apps that could be used as teaching tools (our product). I would brainstorm ideas with various students, they would pick ones to pursue, and start developing apps. I would evaluate them and request modifications.

This evaluation process was not like a normal class in which the project is submitted, graded, and the job is done. Students were expected to work on a project until it was right. Instead of preparing formal lessons, I focused on providing resources and guidance.

We created an after-school program called Southside Automated Machines–the SAM Team—and started using Android phones as “brains” for controlling various robots, including our 7 ft high robot, SAM Sr. The SAM Team started making crowd-pleasing appearances at our local science center and other venues. Roughly a year after start-up, I gave my AP Physics class an open-ended assignment: devise an experiment that uses any of the various apps developed in IB Comp Sci, run the experiment, and write up a formal research report on it. The results were impressive.

For funding, I used up the few hundred dollars I get for classroom supplies along with a $300 grant from BP’s Fabric of America Fund (acquired thanks to support form a parent). As is eventually the case with all entrepreneurial ventures, I began to realize that neither my funding nor technical expertise in phone-programming were going to be enough to go much further.

Fortunately, at just the right moment, we were able to form a partnership with Dr. Brian Dean and his PhD student, Matt Dabney, of Clemson University. Together, with my students, we became the AndSAM Project dedicated to bringing Android Phone power to the K-12 classroom.

As our first act, we submitted a request to Google and received a $15,000 Google RISE award, yet another form of partnership. We purchased a classroom set of 16 phones along with four additional ones to be used by Clemson University for developing lesson materials.

With technical expertise and teaching provided by our Clemson partners, logistics support provided by school district IT people, myself, and Southside High School, and the funding from Google, we were able to pull off a successful Android Programming Camp this summer. We had a GPS treasure hunt, made 3D photographs, performed voice modification, and many other activities all with student programmed Android phones. Students learned two different types of Android programming and got an excellent taste of what computer science is about—far beyond what I could have done on my own.

The camp started by using MIT’s Android App Invent, available for free and simple enough that apps can be created by individuals with no previous programming experience. The camp then progressed to the more powerful and complicated form of programming in Java. Using either method, it’s not necessary to purchase phones. The phones can be emulated on a normal desk or laptop computer. However, the cost of a classroom set of Android Phones (of course, disabled from making phone calls) is less than 1/3 the cost of a laptop cart with a similar number of computers and much easier to move around. While the phones are not as good for some purposes, they offer outstanding features for science, math, and computer science classes that the laptops can’t provide.

I helped start the original FIRST Robotics team in South Carolina and participated in it for several years. Using a Lemelson-MIT grant, I worked with a group of students who designed, built and demonstrated a 200lb stair climbing robot at MIT. With assistance from GE engineers we once built a 22 foot long wind tunnel. One summer I helped host a game programming summer camp and over many years, I have taken students to science fairs and programming contests. All were exciting activities, yet I have never seen students get more engaged or excited about working with technology than I saw this summer at the Android Programming Camp.

As an added bonus, since many of the computer camp participants are SAM Team members or will be taking AP Computer Science this fall, I now have the best starting position I’ve ever had for teaching the subject. In the past, almost none of my AP Computer Science students had any previous programming experience and little knowledge of what computer science is about.

Hopefully, it will be possible to continue developing the AndSAM project and expand it both horizontally (to other high schools) and vertically (to middle schools) so that it eventually makes a significant contribution to K-12 education. However, it has already given several dozen high school students new skills and a new appreciation for computer science. In a small way, it has also illustrated what can happen when the entrepreneurial spirit is let loose in a high school setting.

(C) Innoventure