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What We Learned: The Sprout Fund & Digital Badges

The Sprout Fund has been working to help people develop digital badges in Pittsburgh and beyond since 2013. Through events like the 2014 National Summit to Reconnect Learning and the 2015 Learning Pathways Summit in Pittsburgh, Sprout convened stakeholders to explore the prospect of using digital badges as a way to recognize student learning and achievement. In 2015, Sprout also led a community-wide process to develop shared learning competencies and engaged regional employers in a discussion about connecting badges to workforce development goals. From 2014 through 2016, Sprout worked with more than 50 community partners who began using digital badges to capture summer learning through Pittsburgh City of Learning, and Sprout provided support to six teams to create cross-disciplinary, badge-enabled learning pathways during the 2016-2017 academic year.

As of 2017, the technology underpinning digital badges is still in development; however, the design principles and shared practices that have emerged for digital badging are increasingly sophisticated. Sprout has helped organizations in Pittsburgh and across the country design their own digital badges, and Sprout’s badge development process has been tested and refined by a national community of practitioners.

As a result of our efforts in Pittsburgh and beyond, there is now broader awareness of digital badges as a way to recognize and reward learning. Educators working in schools, after-school programs, and informal learning spaces are increasingly considering digital badges as a way to document and reward students for learning anytime, anywhere.

Sharing What We’ve Learned

We’re proud to have played a role in the early stages of this work and we’re eager to share what we’ve learned about digital badges along the way. Today we’re releasing What We Learned: The Sprout Fund & Digital Badges, a collection of resources that covers the history of our experience with digital badges and includes key considerations and design principles for developing your own high-quality digital badges for learning.

In addition to some downloadable worksheets and reference guides, we’ve included descriptions of the key steps in our process and a discussion about why we pursued these steps, what we were trying to achieve, and the insights that emerged along the way. We hope that these resources will help practitioners thoughtfully design and begin to issue digital badges in their programs.

The publication includes five main sections:

  • Key Considerations for the Badge-CuriousUse this section to read about the history of digital badging and Connected Learning and some key considerations for the “badge-curious” — that is, people who are considering using digital badges for the first time.
  • Case Studies: You can read about Sprout’s history with badging and browse some brief case studies of badging in Pittsburgh.
  • Design PrinciplesTo get started with designing your own badges, use the self-assessment tool to see whether badging is a good fit for your program. Then, use a series of worksheets we’ve created to help you design your badges.
  • Platform & Technology ConsiderationsFinally, explore some key ideas that should guide your thinking as you pick tools to support your work.
  • Links & Resources: You can also browse a list of links and resources that we’ve curated of the best and most useful badging resources out there.

We hope that these resources will help others build on the good work that’s been started in Chicago, in Pittsburgh, and across the country. We believe in the potential of badges and other new forms of assessment as tools that help make all learning count.

If you’re interested in getting started with badges, or if you’d like to share your own stories of success, we hope you’ll get in touch. We’re eager to share what we’ve learned to help other programs better serve their students. If you’d like to learn more about our work, please contact The Sprout Fund at connect@sproutfund.org.

Read What We Learned on Medium.

This Summer, Pittsburgh Becomes a Citywide Campus for Learning

Pittsburgh schools closed their doors last Monday, but the city got a running start on summer opportunities the weekend before. At the Cities of Learning (COL) launch party, on the sunny lawn at the Carnegie Library, local kids and teens learned about their dizzying array of options for discovery and exploration.

Sound familiar? It isn’t Pittsburgh’s first conversion into a living campus, but it is the largest. After a trial run last summer, and armed with a new grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the Sprout Fund tweaked and expanded COL to ready the initiative for 2015.

Whether a budding filmmaker or an amateur bike mechanic, a Pittsburgh child or teen will find a slew of (mostly free) activities in the Cities of Learning roster that will help build on his or her passions. The more than 40 participating organizations help youth develop expertise in their interest areas, figure out links to academic and professional pathways, and document their accomplishments with digital badges.

http://www.pghcityoflearning.comPittsburgh, which joins Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., in the national initiative, was an ideal candidate for COL.

“There are many things happening in summertime but they can seem kind of fragmented, disconnected,” said Sprout Fund Executive Director Cathy Lewis Long. “It definitely takes a network approach to begin to gather and collect and lift up the incredible opportunities.”

The organizers capitalized on Pittsburgh’s existing network of formal and informal institutions and educators to present a cohesive “campus.” This year, the community is further integrated, with Pittsburgh Public Schools serving as a major COL partner. The schools’ Summer Dreamers Academy is participating, awarding badges to students.

“We’re interested in creating a more connected environment between their formal school life and things they’re doing outside of school,” said Dustin Stiver, Sprout program officer. “So the Summer Dreamers opportunity was a great chance to sort of test the notion of badges in a school environment but also during the summer.”

Over the past year, Sprout convened a diverse group of educators to determine the core competencies important to the community, and to create badges and curricula to reflect them.

“One of the things we learned from last year is it’s important to provide educators with the proper support to implement this kind of initiative,” Stiver said. “It was a starting point for educators to think about their badge design very critically.”

Badges are meant to acknowledge that learning happens throughout the summer—at libraries and museums, in parks—but might go unrecognized, Long said. Whether they have learned to laser-etch a light switch cover, tend to a lawn, or plan and budget a trip, kids now have a standardized means of demonstrating their accomplishments—to future employers, for example.

The activities and partner organizations are all searchable on the new Pittsburgh COL website.

“To borrow an analogy from [Sprout program associate] Tim Cook, it’s like taking all the brochures and pamphlets off the coffee shop shelf and putting them all online where parents and students and others can find the things they’re interested in,” Stiver said.

Head over to the site now, where participants can sign up, build a profile, and start navigating the City of Learning right away.

What’s the Next Step for Pittsburgh’s Learning Pathways? Your Feedback.

Back in November, more than 400 educators, artists, students, and learning experts came together for the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. There, they exchanged ideas and envisioned pathways that would harness the region’s diverse learning opportunities. Now, seven working groups are looking for feedback from fellow subject-matter experts.

In case you need a refresher, a learning pathway is a bit like a “choose your own adventure” book where students move through various education opportunities that both interest them and equip them with a set of skills.

Theoretically, this could happen in any city with a rich web of education programs. But in Pittsburgh, seven working groups in different focus areas (robotics, STEAM, design and making, coding and gaming, media making, early learning, and career readiness) have identified the competencies young people need to gain along each path, helping them build on their talents and interests every step of the way. And badges, a new type a digital credential, are serving as way finders along these paths to show what kids have already accomplished.

In recent months, the groups have been poring over feedback from the summit, making adjustments, and identifying evidence that could be used to demonstrate competence in each focus area.

For example, in a model pathway for media making, students might start by taking a stop motion animation class at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and then move onto a digital photo workshop at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. From there, they would head to WYEP’s audio workshop to learn how to capture audio for video projects, and then they’d move on to Duquesne University, where they’d learn to add music. The pathway continues through workshops for editing, script writing, and presentation screenings.

“I’m invested in the idea of digital badges and what they could mean for Pittsburghers, especially at-risk youth.” Corey Wittig, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Though the members of the working groups were putting their heads together to map out these paths for kids, several members said the process was helpful for informing their own work.

“The working group project really helped to bounce ideas off of a bunch of folks serving youth around the city,” said Corey Wittig, the digital learning librarian for teen services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. “I’m invested in the idea of digital badges and what they could mean for Pittsburghers, especially at-risk youth.”

Jessica Ruffin, site director of Public Allies Pittsburgh, agreed. “Our organization could be well-positioned to recognize badges,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to share about our region’s resources and opportunities. I learned a ton.”

But there are plenty of experts who weren’t in the room for these discussions. That leads to our next step: We need your brainpower.

We’re collecting more feedback through a set of surveys where everyone can rate and comment on each of the competencies developed by the Working Groups. After that, the Digital Badge Lab at The Sprout Fund will incorporate this last set of feedback and finalize the competencies and learning pathways, complete with graphics.

It’s been a long process to develop this project, but Maggie Negrete, a teaching artist for MGR Youth Empowerment, summed up an overarching goal at the summit last fall: “It’s about connecting community members,” she said. “There are so many people who live in our community who have the knowledge and resources we’re searching for. I wish every kid could find that one person who knew how to just get started.”

The Remake Learning Badge Competency Surveys are open now. Share your feedback!

Digital Badges—Here to Stay?

In addition to checking out books this summer at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, students were experimenting with photography. Some were natural photographers. They’d been taking shots and using PhotoShop on their owcarnegie-library-of-pittsburgh-the-labs-photography-360x360n time for some time. But the workshops at the Labs @ CLP, the library’s digital space for teens, gave them a chance to take that learning to the next level.

Experts say the learning kids are doing on their own time, outside of schools, needs more attention. How do we recognize this learning? How do we take better advantage of the new kinds of information and online collaboration available to today’s young people?

One possible answer that got some traction in 2014 is Open Badges.

Digital Badging 101

Digital badges have been around for some time now, but 2014 was a big year for badging—though they weren’t immune to a few bumps along the way. If you haven’t been following the evolution of digital badges, here’s the rundown of what they are and what they’re intended to do.

the-ellis-school-3d-printing-explorer-360x360At their core, badges are a digital way to document learning that happens outside of school—a way to document and show the world (and potential employers one day) what you know and how you came to know it. Or, as Taiji Nelson, naturalist educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy who issued badges to students this summer, put it: “It’s like scout badges meet LinkedIn.”

Last summer badges hit the mainstream in new ways, through several City of Learning programs across the country, including here in Pittsburgh. Cities of Learning knit together many out-of-school learning opportunities for kids, ranging from programs in museums to pop-up fashion shows.

Badges were an integral part of at least three cities’ programs last summer, including Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. In Pittsburgh, about 3,000 children participated in 20 programs that offered 71 distinct badges. Youth earned approximately 1,800 badges by summer’s end.

pittsburgh-parks-conservancy-beginner-tree-id-360x360“Right now grades belong to the institution, your institution issues your transcript,” said Cathy Lewis-Long in a recent interview, “Whereas with badges, a learner can earn badges throughout a city.

It’s not only Cities of Learning that are rolling out badges. For several years now, organizations as varied as NASA; the University of California, Davis; the National 4-H Council; the Manufacturing Institute; and the Department of Veteran Affairs have been using badges.

Yet, although the roster is impressive, badges have not quite hit prime time yet.

Bumps in the Road

Badges have had their share of bumps along the road, including challenges with infrastructure in the Cities of Learning programs. Badges have also been met with a few raised eyebrows among the digital learning cognoscenti, like Henry Jenkins and Mitch Resnick.

techshop-pittsburgh-maker-mindset-311x360Some of the reservations are insightful and challenging. Do badges, for example, risk becoming nothing more than an empty “achievement selfie” for kids, chronicling every achievement but stripping the intrinsic joy from learning? Resnick, for one, equated badges to those who climb the Appalachian Trail to earn “peaking” cred (attaining as many peaks as possible on a day), which seems to miss the point of being on the trail in the first place.

Others, like Jenkins, worry that adult-proffered badges kill the quasi-subversive joy of informal learning—“no adults allowed!”—especially in this already overscheduled, blue-ribboned world.

Others wonder, do we really need yet another credential to join certifications, nanodegrees, microcredentials, licenses, points, Scout badges, and more?

All of this is to be expected when a new model tries to establish itself (“disrupt,” if you must) amid an established way of doing things—aka grades or resumés.

Part of the criticism also stems from the “open” in Open Badges. As of yet, there’s not a lot of clear structure to earning badges. Kids can earn and showcase badges from a variety of stand-alone sources—a museum here, a YMCA there—and for a variety of skills and talents. But few organizations as of yet have created a series of badges that build on one another across the different organizations.

Photo/Ben Filio

2014 Open Badges Summit to Reconnect Learning. Photo/Ben Filio

Paving a Way Forward

Pittsburgh may have a solution. In addition to piloting badges through the City of Learning initiative,The Sprout Fund has recruited about 120 educators and subject matter experts across seven different focus areas, such as Making, coding, STEAM, or career-readiness. Like curriculum designers in schools, these working groups are developing a shared set of competencies for learning outside of school, or “learning pathways.” The working groups are also developing which artifacts kids need to create to prove mastery, like an audio recording to earn a badge in digital recording.

Afterschool providers across the region could conceivably use these competencies for awarding badges, and to identify gaps in programming where essential competencies or skills are not currently being offered in programs.

As Ryan Coon, program officer at the Sprout Fund, explained, “In a way, we’re asking them to think like curriculum designers in schools. The process is also helping some of these smaller providers professionalize their planning and offerings. It’s helping them set goals for the kids and for their own programs.”

RMLDC  Remix BadgeBadges could help to make these pathways clear. Kids can earn badges as they progress along the curriculum that the working groups have created, and organizations can sharpen their thinking about what kids should learn in their programs and how.

Marijke Hecht, director of education at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which has created five badges for their Young Naturalists summer program, said that the process of issuing badges has helped them better understand their mission. Hecht said badging helped push her and her colleagues to narrow in program delivery, goals, and how to best evaluate student learning.

“The benefit was that it encouraged us to look really closely at the learning goals that we had for this out-of-school experience,” Hecht said. “When we do our school programs, we go through a lot of depth in tying lesson plans to state standards. But with informal learning, you don’t always have to do that. This pushed us to go a little deeper on criteria.”

For Hecht and others starting to dabble in badges, there’s still some work to be done to make badges easier to use and understand.

“We need people thinking about where do these things live and how do they get communicated. I really hope that gets cleared up, because I think there’s so much potential with badges. I think our kids would really like there to be clear recognition for the kinds of things they do out of school.”

Kathleen Costanza contributed to this story.

Digital Badges Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Teens—especially in Pittsburgh—have tons of opportunities to learn outside of school. They can make music with digital tools, experiment with circuitry, and program LED lights. With the help of mentors and others, they expand their horizons and learn new skills, while no doubt benefiting their schoolwork.

Yet most of that out-of-school learning goes undocumented. So how can we track which skills kids pick up when they’re away from the classroom? And once they’ve mastered those skills, how can we get better at helping kids build on them?

Educators and students will explore these questions and more on November 21 at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. They will gather with librarians, artists, and researchers to explore innovative concepts, like digital badges and connected learning pathways, as a continued step in connecting in- and out-of-school learning.

A main item on the agenda is digital badges—a new way to document the whole gamut of kids’ learning. Badges are digital credentials that let kids document the skills they’ve learned. Because the badges are virtual, they can convey what the badge holder learned in much more detailed fashion. For example, if you want to find out what a badge like “audio production” really entails, you can click on it and read a description of the skills associated with it or hear the song created at various stages of production. Badges can help present out-of-school learning in ways that make universities and companies pay attention. Simply put, they can give young people credit where credit is due.

Digital badges aren’t just an idea. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), high-tech employers, K–12 programs, and more than 40 universities accept them. Even NASA uses them: “There are common skill sets that NASA and other organizations are seeking,” said Leland Melvin, NASA’s former associate administrator for education. “Badging can be used in a cross-cutting way to help learners, educators, and institutions meet the demands of the future.”

Other examples include:

  • TechShop Pittsburgh, which offered a “Maker Mindset” badge this summer that rewarded kids for learning to think like makers. Earning the badge meant the learner had started approaching problems with an engineer mentality while engaging in the entire making process.
  • The Young Adult Library Services developed a badge system to recognize, improve, and enhance the skills of library staff working with teens.
  • The Providence After School Alliance, which formally launched an open badge system that captures and publicly recognizes student learning in arts, STEM, civics, and other subjects. Students can even use badges to earn elective credits toward graduation from Providence public high schools and can include badges as part of their applications to local colleges.

Badges also help adults who design programs for kids. “I was really excited when I found out that this was happening in Pittsburgh,” said Rachel Shepherd in a ConnectedLearning.tv webinar last summer. Shepherd, the former youth and media program manager at the Steeltown Entertainment Project, explained that badges help her and her colleagues ask themselves what skills they’re ultimately trying to teach.

In a way, adding structure is what badges are all about. Badges can be the breadcrumbs along the pathways of learning, documenting what kids are learning along the way.

What Does a “Learning Pathway” Really Look Like for a Pittsburgh Kid?

We talk a lot about learning networks and pathways on this blog. But we often get asked, “What does a network actually look like? Is it a concrete thing or just an abstract idea?”

In a nutshell, it’s both.

As we approach the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit on November 21, we thought it might be a good time to answer these questions, and describe what we mean by “learning pathway.” A learning pathway is indeed a real thing, but it’s also an idea that guides our work here at Remake Learning. So what does a pathway really look like for a Pittsburgh kid?

Let’s imagine there’s a high school student, and let’s call her Maria. Maria is really into taking pictures and videos on Instagram, so her teacher recommends she check out the YMCA Lighthouse Program. She gets her first exposure to media production, photo editing, and lends a hand on a short film.

Now that she’s got the basic technical know-how down, she decides to work on some of her own footage at The Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. She starts going to open lab hours but ends up sitting in on workshops where she learns about green screens and Adobe After Effects.

At The Labs, Maria discovers Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program. She and a group of other students work with Super 8 cameras to make a film they feel pretty good about, so they enter it in the Take a Shot film festival from Steeltown Entertainment.

Up until this point, Maria’s films and photos have all been funny narratives. But she’s interested in using film and storytelling for documentaries, which she’s recently begun watching on YouTube. She wonders if there’s a program where she could try that out—and finds just what she’s looking for at Pittsburgh Youth Media.

By this point, Maria’s schoolwork is starting to reflect these new summer and afterschool opportunities. In school she’s connecting coursework to things she’s learned out of school, and she’s even documented some of her new skills with badges. Plus, she’s way into film.

Maria is not alone in finding these connections and outlets. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work happening in Pittsburgh to make Maria’s hypothetical pathway a reality. Though it might seem as if she happened upon all these media production opportunities by happenstance, a pathway like this actually takes quite a bit of coordination and work on the part of educators in Pittsburgh, both in and outside of school.

At the Kids+Creativity Network we’re working hard to bring together educators and topic area experts across our region to map out these pathways.

How? Seven working groups have mapped out sets of competencies teens need to know in order to advance in robotics or design, for example. And they’re considering which pathways kids could take to gain those skills. For example, the coding and gaming working group considers which specific skills a young person needs to go from a beginning to an advanced level in game design. The group examines which programs are already in place and asks what’s missing.

Ideally, badges will be little breadcrumbs along these learning pathways. Badges are digital credentials that let kids document the skills they’ve learned. Maria’s already completed the camera fundamentals badge at Steeltown Entertainment. Next step could be digital storytelling at Heinz History Center.

“The approach we’re taking is not to churn out a bunch of badges and hope they connect,” said Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of The Sprout Fund, the nonprofit that’s leading this community effort. “Instead, we’re trying work with potential badge issuers to understand how badges will work within a continuum of in-school and out-of-school learning experiences.”

Every major city has creative afterschool or summer activities. And the idea of connected learning ecosystems, or basically turning cities into big campuses, went national last summer with Cities of Learning in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

In Pittsburgh, we’re building on this momentum by helping connect participating organizations so that they’re familiar with the other opportunities out there. That way, program staff can help young people figure out where they can head next to level up their competencies in gaming, media production, robotics, and more.

To us, these pathways are serious business. An education that prepares kids for the ever-changing future should be multi-faceted, full of chances to explore interests and make mistakes. Schools shouldn’t be the only ones responsible for this education, and we envision these pathways running parallel to that experience, each one enriching the other.

“If we’re talking about learning pathways, we’re having a conversation about how learning is a journey, not a destination,” said Anna Smith, a doctoral candidate who researches learning pathways, in a Connected Learning webinar last year. “And I think we’re hyper-focused in education right now on those destination markers. Our curriculum, our standards, our assessments —what counts as learning is being confined by that.”

Sometimes it’s tricky to visualize what all this work with learning pathways looks like on a large scale—thus hypothetical Maria. But it won’t be hard to see the real results from the new pathways kids in Pittsburgh are trailblazing right now.

We’ll have more to report after workshopping these ideas with more than 400 teachers, students, mentors, and others at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit this Friday. Follow along on Twitter with #LearningPathways for live updates throughout the day.

Why Grit and Perseverance May Be Just As Important As #STEM Skills

Earlier this month, we mentioned 10-year-old Damian, who’s spent chunks of his summer at the Hilltop YMCA honing his animation skills and learning about Hummingbird. By the time the new school year rolls around, Damian will have a solid grasp of basic programming and coding skills, whereas other kids around the city have been experimenting with roller coasters and tinkering with electronics.

But spending time in afterschool and summer programs has value in addition to those specific STEM skills kids are picking up. This unstructured time can instill perseverance, curiosity, collaboration, and many other positive habits of mind. Heading into a school year filled with Scantrons and math homework, it’s important to remember how critical character traits like these are for shaping kids’ futures as well—and how robust learning networks can help kids strengthen these skills.

As David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times, research has consistently shown that these habits of mind formed in childhood have a big effect on success into adulthood. “Character development,” he wrote, is “an idiosyncratic, mysterious process.” However, Brooks claimed ignoring character development altogether in programs and policies doesn’t consider people as complex humans affected by more than only economic structures.

Brooks pointed to Walter Mischel’s well-known marshmallow experiment that demonstrated “delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood.” He also mentioned Carol Dweck’s seminal research that examined how people who think intelligence is a fixed, innate trait are more prone to giving up because of setbacks. Meanwhile, people with a “growth mindset,” or those who believe ability is something they can gain through effort and education, are more likely to persevere.

And we’ve talkedtechshop-pittsburgh-maker-mindset about Angela Duckworth’s research before, which explored how grit and self-control can predict success much more than talent or ability can. Duckworth defined grit as the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals,” and her work has found self-discipline predicts academic performance more accurately than IQ does.

Journalist Paul Tough dove into the subject of character in his 2012 book, “How Children Succeed.” He argued that our society tends to believe that cognitive abilities—the kinds measured in IQ tests—largely determine success. But an evolving body of education research continues to find that’s not really the whole story.

“What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help [students] develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence,” he wrote. “Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”

Tough explained that although affluent kids are often overprotected from adversity, kids from low-income families face the opposite: more pressing problems, innumerable obstacles, and no safety net. For these kids, the stakes for developing these traits early are particularly high. In his book, Tough spoke to Jeff Nelson, cofounder of OneGoal, a three-year college persistence program in Chicago and Houston that focuses on noncognitive skills in the context of a rigorous college prep curriculum.

“Noncognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college,” Nelson told Tough. “And they can help our students compensate for some of the inequality they have faced in the education system.”

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the “grit narrative” or the discussion of character development in general. Too often, the discussion suggests that disadvantaged kids need only more determination to overcome the enormously unequal obstacles in our education system. However, focusing on character shouldn’t be a distraction from efforts to fix an unequal system that requires low-income kids to have more grit to unlock the same opportunities their affluent peers have. But it seems persistence is a key ingredient to any success story, and teaching kids from all backgrounds that their abilities can change with hard work is still a valuable goal for both schools and learning networks.

Pittsburgh’s Cities of Learning network includes character as an important aspect of its badge system rolled out this year. This summer, each participating organization offered a disposition badge along with a skill and knowledge badge. For example, TechShop Pittsburgh offered a “Maker Mindset” badge that youth earn, in part, by describing an instance when they learned from a mistake. Meanwhile, youth earned “Passionate Perseverance” badges from The Ellis School by demonstrating a willingness iterate and solve setbacks in design challenges.

Remake Learning will keep working to promote badges that recognize dispositions. Of course, specific skills like robotics or digital filmmaking open up opportunities for kids down the line. But matched with strong, determined character traits, kids are more likely to be fully equipped to use the “hard” skills to their full potential.

Why We’re Making Our City a Summer Camp

School’s out. For some, this means days at the pool, campfires, or family road trips. But for many children in our communities, the end of the school year means losing access to things that are crucial for their growth and development: books, mentors, meaningful enrichment, or even healthy food.

Studies show that low-income kids in particular lack these resources during the summer months. These are often the same children who typically lag behind their upper-income peers in academic achievement, especially in reading.

These deficiencies are serious and can have long-term consequences. According to the National Summer Learning Association and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, four out of every five low-income students fail to read proficiently by the end of third grade, making them four times more likely to drop out of high school. Today is National Summer Learning Day, which aims to highlight the importance of high-quality summer learning programs.

Here in Pittsburgh, we’re intervening by joining these initiatives and with other national organizations. We want to make sure our city has broad commitment to helping all of our students access learning opportunities year round. This means giving kids the chance to participate in intellectually ambitious and hands-on enrichment activities during the summer in our city’s schools, libraries, museums, and community centers. And it means using digital badges to help kids show what they know. 

Badges are a way to capture, promote, and transfer all of the learning that occurs within a broader community context—in-school, out-of-school, and online.

We call our initiative Pittsburgh City of Learning. We’re joining Chicago; Columbus; Dallas; Los Angeles; and Washington, D.C., in this effort to make our whole city a “campus” for our young people and to take advantage of all our city has to offer in the summer.

Participating programs will offer youth the opportunity to earn digital badges, a new way for students to display the skills and competencies they develop through activities and achievements to teachers, college admissions officers, or future employers. Badges are a way to capture, promote, and transfer all of the learning that occurs within a broader community context—in-school, out-of-school, and online.

This broad, cross-sector, public-private partnership brings together government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations to provide more than 3,000 youth with better access to academic and hands-on learning opportunities, many of which are free. We emphasize media making as well as digital, maker, and STEAM learning.  For example:

    • Through the i5 High Def Summer Smash Jam, a program of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and Carnegie Science Center, middle and high school students will participate in digital video workshops to create science-oriented video projects.
    • At branches of the Carnegie Library teens can produce original music, make films, or participate in technology workshops through The Labs @ CLP.
    • Young Naturalists, a summer learning program of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, will give high school students opportunities to get outdoors and gain unique work and leadership experience through environmental stewardship.
    • Reading Warriors, a summer learning program of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, provides high school reading mentors to 100 elementary school children, teaching them that reading isn’t just a skill to learn but a powerful way of interacting with the world.
    • Through Art in Action, part of Pittsburgh Public School’s Summer Dreamers Academy, students will learn how to use music, art, drama, dance, and media to ignite change in their school and community.

Programming began this week and will culminate in a citywide Maker Party free learning event, in August.

Through partner organizations in the Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network, learning experiences will take youth on new paths of discovery; encourage them to explore the city’s rich resources; and help them find out what they can learn, make, do, and ultimately become.