Ava Bemer watched over her seventh-grade science class at Sierra Middle School early Thursday afternoon as the students completed an assignment on earthquakes.

The class was mostly quiet as the students studied the difference between a seismograph and a seismometer, and attempted to describe what "magnitude" is.

Instead of flipping through textbook pages to find the answers, however, the students watched a video and viewed images on their individual laptop computers before completing the assignment.

The videos, images and accompanying text are the result of a partnership between the Sunnyside Unified School District and Discovery Education, which provided digital textbooks and an accompanying science curriculum to the school district.

Discovery Education, which is part of the media company that owns the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, is pitching in to assist Sunnyside's latest effort to enhance its One-to-One computing program, which provides a laptop computer to a every one of the 8,500 district students in fourth through ninth grades.

Discovery Education continues to work with the district to develop its science, technology and math programs, after charging $58,000 for the digital textbook.

In this, the first year the district implemented the Discovery Education program, it is being used in sixth- through eighth-grade science classes, said Pam Betten, director of middle schools and the One-to-One program.

The district adopted the program because of Discovery's reputation as well as its focus on the new state-adopted Common Core standards, which are expected to better prepare students for college and careers by teaching them to think more critically.

"Unlike a traditional textbook, you can actually engage the students into seeing these science concepts in real time," said Steve Holmes, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

District officials still face many challenges with its technology, ranging from maintaining the equipment and online content to figuring out how the computers and programs can lead to better academic achievement.

"Of course we want the growth of the learning to show on tests. We also want to be able to capture how kids are beginning to think and what that looks like," Betten said.

Options for learning

In Bemer's class, students had different options for reviewing the lesson and answering the questions.

In addition to the video, the lesson includes photos, diagrams and captions that read aloud when students clicked on the paragraph.

The home page is similar to what's found in a college course, with an overview of the class along with previous and current assignments.

When students are done with a lesson, they click a "submit" button at the end of the assignment instead of leaving a piece of paper on the teacher's desk.

If students don't finish the assignment in class, Bemer allows them to finish the work and submit it from home.

When children complete a test, they receive their grades immediately.

"It shows kids where they did poorly," Bemer said. "It's easier for students to see how they're doing. They can go back and look at grades."

It's easier for Bemer to give students feedback on their work, she said.

Bemer does not view the program as a replacement for a textbook, but rather as a supplement that can help students, especially those with learning disabilities, she said.

Some of the students who use the program see advantages as well.

"It's much easier to use the website than using normal textbooks and having the teacher explain it," said seventh-grader Oscar Fuentes, 12.

Fuentes said seeing the videos and images helps him remember the lessons better than just reading the information in a textbook.

"Once I see the videos and diagrams, it gets stuck in my head," he said.

For seventh-grader Julissa Reyes, the program allows her to better understand the class assignments, she said.

"I like that it's really organized," said Reyes, 13.

Ongoing challenges

Although district officials, teachers and students have benefited from the increased technology, there are still challenges associated with relying on computers and the Internet.

"It's cool, but it's presented new challenges for us," said Holmes, the assistant superintendent. "Like what happens when one breaks? How do we take care of them?

"Unlike a textbook, where a page gets ripped out and you can figure it out. If you break your computer, we have to go through a whole series of troubleshooting."

Teachers have also had to learn how to teach in a classroom where usually every student has his or her own computer with Internet access. Bemer described the changes as an "evolution in classroom management."

"It's keeping them on focus. We've learned how to spot the kids on the wrong websites," she said.

One of the bigger challenges will involve using the increased technology and online curriculum to improve academic results in the district, which received a C grade from the state department of education in 2011-12.

Sunnyside started giving laptops to students in fifth grade three years ago and has added grades each year since, Betten said.

The district is making the transition to the Common Core standards, along with the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment.

The state will phase out the AIMS graduation test by 2017. Students will be evaluated using the PARCC assessment in 2015, while the Common Core standards will be fully implemented next year.

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Contact reporter Jamar Younger at jyounger@azstarnet.com or 573-4115. On Twitter: @JamarYounger