Improving High School Students' Performance Via Discovery Learning, Collaboration and Technology

The Discovery Center of the College of Staten Island (CSI) was established in 1987. Dr. Leonard Ciaccio and Dr. James Sanders are co-directors who administer over $450,000 annually in eight collaborative grant-funded programs.

The directors believe that the integration of four traditionally separate efforts is required to successfully impact student performance in K-12 schools. These efforts are:

  • ï Recruiting bright students for teaching careers;
    ï Providing excellent pre-service teacher training programs;
    ï Collaborating with teachers in inservice training programs; and
    ï Establishing an environment in schools that fosters effective teaching.
  • To this end, Ciaccio and Sanders work with the Department of Education and other academic departments to develop the entire college as a resource for improving teaching and learning in local school districts. More than 30 professors (13% of CSI faculty) participate in programs sponsored by the Discovery Center.

    Philosophy of the Discovery Center

    Several early projects undertaken by the Discovery Center addressed the question of why boredom in the classroom is so typical among average high school students. This boredom often results from a teacher-centered instructional method, which emphasizes memorizing facts and completing traditional exercises that lead to foregone conclusions. In addition, most students are exposed only to fragments of any particular subject because concepts are carefully divided among the traditional academic disciplines. Finally, many teenagers perceive the information presented in their classes to be irrelevant to their lives.

    Ciaccio and Sanders formulated a new learning and teaching model, which they call ìthe discovery model.î Curriculum materials are student-centered and feature open-ended, hands-on activities that incorporate the significant ideas of the academic discipline. By coordinating blocks of academic classes, teachers are able to integrate themes that are innately interesting to adolescents. This model, now incorporated in all projects sponsored by the Discovery Center, is a primary reason for the substantial improvements in student performance.


    Ciaccio and Sanders realized in the evaluation of one of their early projects (Project Discovery - Fund for The Improvement of Post Secondary Education, 1990-1993) that collaboration between college faculty and high school teachers was essential to promoting their discovery learning model.

    The greatest impact upon student performance occurred in programs where secondary school teachers eagerly participated in planning sessions and workshops as equal partners. Creative ideas flow easily in such meetings. Teachers, as a result, assume ownership of the programs and view both the faculty and the facilities at CSI as valuable resources for reaching their educational goals. This empowerment of participating teachers is now a central tenet of any project run from the Discovery Center.

    The centerís directors also learned that a long-term support system is necessary to permanently change teachersí attitudes and behaviors. An ìidealî discovery-based curriculum package d'es not produce change in the way teachers think about teaching. Rather, it is the process of engaging other teachers and college faculty in serious dialog, respecting everyoneís expertise, integrating common ideas, and working out the classroom implementation together that changes teachersí behavior in the classroom. This change is gradual; often results are not significant until the fifth year of a project. The teachersí recognition of themselves as professionals is critical. This perception takes many years to cultivate.

    Integration of Technology

    Integrating current computer technology into all student-centered activities is necessary to support the discovery learning model. Writing and data analysis are the tools that students use to explore topics and master concepts.

    Computer software provides an environment where it is easy to revise ideas and perform varied types of analyses. Graphics and multimedia capabilities give students the ability to share a common visual representation of difficult concepts. And the Internet is an optimal setting both for pursuing independent research and for building a community of high school students with common interests.

    The Computer Science Department

    One CSI department that supports the programs offered by the Discovery Center is the Computer Science Department. Faculty works extensively with both K-12 teachers and students in the laboratory facilities on campus. Professor Kress, chair of the department, is a leader at CSI in promoting computer-assisted multimedia education and computer networking on campus.

    The CSI campus has over 40 classrooms with direct links to an audio/visual media center. Local area networks in each building are connected by fiber optic links between buildings. This network provides all faculty and students with access to e-mail, CUNY library catalogs, a CD-ROM tower, academic software and the Internet. There are also multimedia laboratories for authoring and producing assistive technology for students with disabilities.

    The Tech-Prep and Honors Research/Teaching Internship Programs

    Two of the many programs in which the Computer Science Department participates are Tech-Prep and the Honors Research/Teaching Internship.

    The Tech-Prep program is coordinated by Dr. Peter Takvorian (a teacher at Tottenville High School) and Joseph Russo (a teacher at Curtis High School). Low-income, disadvantaged, under-achieving students are recruited at the end of their sophomore year for this program. They are placed in a curriculum expressly designed to be interesting and relevant to them.

    The course of study prepares them for entry into the two-year program in Medical Technology at CSI (or elsewhere) or for skilled employment upon graduation from high school. Their academic preparation is also sufficient for entry into bachelor degree programs.

    All of these academic courses supplement the hands-on experimentation that students perform in the science component of the Tech- Prep program. These students and their teachers come to CSI to perform experiments in the collegeís laboratories and to use its computer facilities. They also serve apprenticeships in various health-related institutions in the community.

    The Honors Research/Teaching Internship program is coordinated by Richard Rimpici, a retired teacher from Curtis High School, and directed by co-director Sanders; it targets talented and achievement-oriented students. These students participate in summer internships at CSI for three summers during high school. Students and their teachers attend workshops at CSI in research experiments, writing skills, lab techniques and computer usage. During the academic year, they engage in after-school research with professors at CSI or other local research facilities. The teaching interns attend bi-monthly workshops at CSI and assist teachers in the science laboratories at their own schools for four hours each week.

    Technology is integrated into every aspect of these two programs. For example, students attend workshops to develop their computer skills. The first series covers computer hardware and commercial software packages; the second focuses on the Internet. Academic seminars in writing and mathematics are held in the computer labs, with students using current commercial software. Laboratory experiments and hands-on learning exercises utilize the networked computers on campus for writing reports and performing data analyses. Finally, students have the opportunity to post their research results on Web pages.

    Evaluation of the Two Programs

    As noted above, students are selected for the Tech-Prep program at the end of their sophomore year in high school. Selection is based on an analysis of their test scores from grades 7 to 10.

    A profile was developed after examining the test scores of students who dropped out of the Medical Technology Program at CSI. Virtually all of these students (more than 95%) had failed all three of the City University of New York (CUNY) skills-assessment tests (tests that measure readiness to enter college-level courses without remediation.) It was discovered that the unsuccessful Medical Technology students also had below average scores on standardized tests from grades 7 through 10.

    CSIís Tech-Prep program only accepts students who fit this profile. If no intervention occurs, they will most likely (over 95%) fail their CUNY assessment exams in view of their test scores from grades 7 through 10. During their two years in the Tech-Prep program, however, students make a dramatic reversal. Their academic averages rise consistently. But most impressive is their performance on the CUNY skills-assessment tests. Over 90% of the students pass all three of the tests (see Table 1).[1]

    Table 1: Percent of Students Passing CUNY Skills- Assessment TestsNumber            Reading   Writing   MathFall 94, N=70     >95%      >95%      >92%Fall 95, N=86      92%       90%       90%Notes:

    1) Data is from Curtis and Totenville High Schools students (Tech-Prep Program). 
    2) All students passed the assessment tests on a retest. 
    3) Of the 41 students at CS as full-time students, all enrolled in a full program of 100 level courses (no remediation required).

    In contrast, the Honors Research/Teaching Interns are chosen from among the top high school students. Discovery Center programs impact their performance as well. One example is a significant improvement in writing skills. An emphasis on writing in the computer-equipped laboratories produces students who can write succinctly and persuasively.

    Students with Honors Research/Teaching Internships were matched with a control group who participated in the summer research program. Testing in the summer of 1995 revealed no significant differences between the two groups.

    In June of 1996, students in the two groups were given an essay assignment involving both critical thinking and writing skill. Essays were scored on a holistic scale from one (very poor) to six (excellent) based on the quality of writing (i.e., clarity, logical flow, thoroughness, structure and depth of ideas). Two readers graded each essay; 89.6% agreement was reached in initial scoring and, after discussion of the inconsistent ratings, full agreement was achieved. Readers were not aware to which group essays belonged.

    Scores in the intern group had a median of 4.0 and a mean of 4.1 (SD=0.7); scores in the control group had a median of 3.0 and a mean of 3.2 (SD=1.0). The distribution of scores for the two groups is shown in Table 2. A statistical comparison of the means reveals that the difference is significant (t = 3.67, p < .001). Score distribution and the significant difference between the means reveals that the teaching internship had a positive effect on the participantsí writing skills.

    Table 2: Scores on Essay for Intern and Control GroupScore Intern Group    Control Group      (N=21)          (N=28)1     0.0%            0.0%2     0.0%            25.0%3     14.3%           39.3%4     57.1%           25.0%5     28.6%           10.7%6      0.0%            0.0%Score Range: 1 = Very Poor and 6 = Excellent

    The teaching internships also changed the honors studentsí attitudes towards teaching. One item from a career interest assessment that was administered demonstrates that the program can motivate high-performing students to consider careers in teaching (see Table 3).

    Table 3: Items from Career Interest Assessment I can imagine myself having a career as a teacher.                           Pre-Test   Post-Test                           (N=16)     (N=13)* Strongly Agree & Agree   12.5%      46.2%* Don't Know               25.0%      30.8%* Strongly Disagree        62.5%      23.1%

    The Future

    For the future, the directors of the Discovery Center plan to involve more college faculty and disseminate their programs more widely. The Center and CSIís Computer Science Department are looking for ways to assist construction of local area networks in each of the public schools on Staten Island, which will connect them to the Internet. These connections will transform the educational and cultural institutions of Staten Island into an integrated learning community that is also linked to the rest of the world.

    Initial steps along this road have already been taken. Some local K-12 schools are now connected to CSI, enabling students and teachers to access CSIís library resources, a CD-ROM tower and the Internet for research projects or homework assignments. Made possible by a grant from J.P. Morgan Foundation through Pace University (Pace University/ High School Library Project), this effort is shepherded by professors Ciaccio, Kress and Dr. Arthur Hafner (chair of CSIís Library Department).

    As communication between the K-12 teachers, administrators and students with college faculty is enhanced by these new network links, the Discovery Centerís projects can be disseminated much more rapidly among college faculty, in the local school districts and beyond. Finally, the two-way nature of Internet connections will publicize the contributions of more K-12 teachers and, ultimately, empower a critical mass of teachers who will then be able to positively impact student performance on a system-wide level. n

    The Discovery Center of the College of Staten Island:

    The authors are all faculty members of The College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York. They can be reached at:


    1. The data analysis presented in this article is taken from evaluations completed by Dr. David Podell, chair of CSIís Education Department.

    Other references, not specifically cited:

    1.  Forcier, Richard C. (1996), The Computer as a Productivity Tool in Education, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.
    2. Grabe, Mark & Grabe, Cindy (1996), Integrating Technology for Meaningful Learning, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
    3. Collins, Allan (1991), ìThe Role of Computer Technology in Restructuring Schools,î Phi Delta Kappan.
    4. Scardamalia, Marlene, et al. (1989), ìComputer Supported Intentional Learning Environments,î Journal of Educational Computing Research, Vol. 5, pp.51-68.
    5. Newman, Denis (April 1990), ìOpportunities for Research on the Organizational Impact of School Computers,î Educational Researcher, pp.8-13.
    6. Nickerson, Raymond S. & Zodhiates, Philip, (Eds.) (1988), Technology and Education: Looking Toward 2020, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Collins, Allan, & Brown, John S. (1988), ìThe Computer as a Tool for Learning Through Reflection,î in H. Mandl & A. Lesgold, eds., Learning Issues for Intelligent Tutoring Systems, New York, NY: Springer, pp.1-18.

    This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.