An anonymous donation of $17,000 made to Patriots Point's education department funded a field trip for Berkeley County fifth-graders and perhaps a prototype for the way Patriots Point engages future visitors.

The donation was made about a year ago on the condition that it create a leadership program for fifth-grade students in the Berkeley County School District.

Keith Grybowski, education director of Patriots Point, used the money to develop an application for iPhones and iPads that creates an interactive experience for students visiting the aircraft carrier.

Over the past two weeks, about 1,500 fifth-graders from 10 schools in Berkeley County used the app to learn firsthand what it was like to serve on an aircraft carrier like the Yorktown during World War II.

During the activity aboard the ship, students were split into three groups, and each was given an iPad. Large screens on the ship told students the story of the Doolittle Raid, the first United States air raid attack on Japan after Pearl Harbor was bombed. The mission was named after its leader, Lt. Col. James Doolittle.

After the film overview, the iPads came into play. The three groups of students were given different tasks in a virtual re-creation of the historic raid, and they were to work together in a tight time-frame to complete the mission using digital technology.

"The kids understand the iPads and the technology, and it's definitely an interesting way to bring history to life," Grybowski said. "They actually became part of the crew that had to face these challenges."

The program encouraged leadership by showing students how to communicate and brainstorm new ideas in a stressful scenario, he said.

Plus, it uses fifth-grade history standards and the STEM educational tool - science, technology, engineering and math.

"This is the most engaged I've seen students. Students of all capabilities participate. I see the honors students, the Title I kids, no matter what level they are, they all get engaged," Grybowski said.

While the program was specifically tailored to the Berkeley County fifth-graders over the past two weeks, the app can be reconfigured and used during all sorts of educational activities at Patriots Point.

"When I saw the first class use this technology, I knew this was the future," Grybowski said.

In January, the state agency will use the app during a district learning program for Charleston County School District students.

It's also going to be applied to the Aviation in Residence flight academy, which will be launched next month, Grybowski said. The program centers on interactive learning with virtual games and missions like the one Berkeley County students participated in.

"My instructors will be able to make assessments as their students are in the middle of a scenario. It's a huge innovation on our part," Grybowski said.

Though the new app was developed as an educational tool, it reflects Patriots Point's initiative to bring the ship's history to life with interactive exhibits.

A gun mount exhibit on the destroyer Laffey, for example, was updated in October to include flickering lights, surround-sound and vibrating floorboards.

The three-year plan to liven up the tourist attraction with updated activities is expected to draw an extra 40,000 visitors and $1.2 million each year by 2016.

Grybowski hinted that the educational app has inspired many ideas for possibilities at the tourist attraction.

"It's always interesting to see what you can do with up-and-coming technology," he said. "It's the next big thing for us."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail