Discovery Corps helps high school students pursue interests in STEM topics and build experience and skills outside the traditional school environment — and their informal learning is rich in educational value. But students struggle to connect those experiences to future educational and career pursuits, and how to convey their value to colleges and potential employers.
Dr. Katie Davis and colleagues at the University of Washington Information School, supported by the National Science Foundation Early Career Development program, want to change that. Their research program, Digital Badges for STEM Education, is evaluating if and how a badging system can effectively recognize achievements from competency-based and project-based learning and encourage longer-term STEM pursuits — and Discovery Corps is the proving ground.
The badging aims to challenge policy initiatives that support the typical school-to-workforce path in STEM fields by building nonlinear paths that connect Discovery Corps work to academic and employment opportunities. The researchers also want to determine if the recognition offered in a digital badging program can help students develop STEM identities — especially students underrepresented in STEM subject areas — to encourage them to pursue related careers and thereby build a more diverse STEM workforce. Research findings will be used to develop educational outreach that supports other institutions that use digital badges to support STEM learning.
From the start, Davis and the team used a process of participatory design to create the badging system, building on surveys and interviews of Discovery Corps coordinators and students as well as other program stakeholders such as local tech employers. The researchers investigated students’ perceptions of badges and what opportunities and challenges they saw in a prototype system, and students even helped to design the digital badges and promote the program. The platform launched in August 2016.
Based on the students’ feedback about that initial deployment, the team developed several new system features, including the ability to organize badges into portfolios tailored for specific audiences and the ability for students to directly message program coordinators about badge-related issues. They introduced the new features in 2018.
Earning badges is a Discovery Corps requirement. More than 65 badges total recognize accomplishments ranging from Tide Pool Interpreter and Planetarium Welcome to Good Employee and 100 Hours of Service.
Badgr provides the program’s badging functionality. When a student receives a Discovery Corps badge, it automatically appears in the Badgr Backpack, where the student can collect it along with badges and micro-credentials earned from hundreds of other programs such as Canvas.
Because they are Open Badges–compliant, Badgr badges stay with learners throughout their lives and are shareable at any time to digital portfolios, LinkedIn, social media, and other online outlets. They are embedded with secure data that colleges, potential employers, and others can view to verify badge authenticity and the specific learning outcomes and skills they represent.
Badgr also powers the learning pathways technology that guides student progress through the Discovery Corps program and helps them visualize which levels they’ve completed, how to advance in the program, and which future learning opportunities correspond to their new skills. Discovery Corps pathways digitize learning that was previously tracked on paper and required students to check in with a supervisor to get status updates, check out on a position, and move forward. Now students can simply go online to see where they stand and what’s left to do.
Davis and her team continue to collect and analyze data from interviews, surveys, and web analytics to evaluate the badging program, identify potential improvements, and investigate how experiences in Discovery Corps and their use of digital badges connect to other aspects of students’ lives.
The researchers are working to address the institutional challenges that come with digital badging, still an unfamiliar concept to many educators and employers. They are already working with higher education stakeholders to explore ways they can recognize digital badges as representing real achievements with transferable value. The team also will track how students use their badges as they enter college over a three-year period.
Davis and the team have concluded, based on results collected so far, that the badge system shows great potential. They believe the potential of such a system is limited only by the extent of the participation in its design and use.