Most teenagers wouldn't dream of putting their cellphones away when dining out. Neither would many moms and dads, for that matter. There are, after all, football scores to check and Facebook statuses that need updating.

But that's exactly what Gabi Heise, Bridgette Grobe and Kelly Stark asked patrons of a Chanhassen Applebee's to do last week — put down the phones and spend more time talking to each other face-to-face.

The three Chanhassen High School seniors organized the "phone-free" night as part of a senior Capstone project, in which students tackle a real-world issue with the knowledge they've gleaned in class. The project is a graduation requirement for all Chanhassen students.

"Technology use is really on the rise, particularly for teenagers, and we really just wanted to show people when it's appropriate to use phones and when it's not. We want families to spend more time talking to each other face-to-face," Stark said.

Added Grobe: "We really want people to just be aware of how much time they spend on the phone."

Under the direction of business teacher Heather Stohs, the students began working on the project this fall as part of her marketing class.

They wanted to explore the ramifications of cellphone use and quickly discovered just how dependent on technology teens have become — research shows that half of all teens say they send 50 or more text messages a day. One in three say they send more than 100 a day.

Their interest was further piqued by a Los Angeles restaurant that gave discounts to diners to agreed to check their cellphones.

The girls approached a couple of local restaurants to see if they would go "phone free" for a night, and allow them to survey diners about their experience. A few said declined.

The Applebees on W. 79th Street was a different story. Manager Christine Hilgers said the ­restaurant has always supported west metro schools and saw that the girls' experiment gave it a chance to do just that.

"Their presentation was very professional," she said. "They laid out what they wanted to do and were able to answer all of my questions. They were very prepared."

A flurry of comments

The voluntary experiment took place last week. More than 50 diners agreed to seal their phones in a manila envelope that they kept at the table. Stohs said her students opted not to collect and store the phones themselves to reduce liability concerns.

If the seal on the envelope wasn't broken by the end of their meal, Applebee's gave the participants free brownie bites.

More than 50 diners participated. Some of the ones who didn't had pretty good excuses. For example, there was a firefighter who didn't think he could be out of contact with his fire station.

"And there were a couple of people who said they really needed to check their e-mail for work, or they needed to be able to respond to a text if they were meeting someone for dinner," Heise said.

When the girls surveyed the participants, about 53 percent of them said they spent more time interacting with fellow diners during the experiment. Survey comments included: "Great idea! All families should do this every night! Kids and parents NEED to communicate!"; "Interesting how many times you reach for your phone and you don't have it"; "I spent more time with my family" and "It's good to 'unplug' and talk to each other instead of being distracted or zoned out on phones."

Lessons learned

As part of the project, the seniors will have to put their findings in a report and make a presentation to an outside group like the Rotary Club. That is likely to take place between now and mid-January, when Stohs' marketing class concludes.

The students say the project has taught them a great deal about marketing, and project management.

"We've also learned about how to be professional when we're dealing with businesses," Stark said. "We've really tried to sound like we know what we're doing."

Perhaps more important, the students have learned the value of putting down their cellphones, even for a little bit, they say.

"It's been good for us," Heise said. "It's made me more aware about the time I spend using technology. It's good to take a break and have some face-to-face time."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469