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Pilot summer education program will offer 'digital badges' for as many as 3,000 children

| Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 11:03 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Entrepreneur Daniel Goncharov, creator and co-founder of ZeGo Robotics, poses for a portrait at TechShop in Bakery Square on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 in East Liberty.

Twenty Pittsburgh-area education groups started a pilot program this week that city leaders hope will offer new learning opportunities for up to 3,000 kids this summer.

They can earn “digital badges” to share on social media and offer as proof to potential employers or college recruiters of skills and experiences.

Cathy Lewis Long, executive director for Garfield-based Sprout Fund, which is helping support the project, said it took root locally in February when city Chief Education & Neighborhood Reinvestment Officer Curtiss Porter attended a national badge summit with Sprout leaders in Silicon Valley.

“We know that learning doesn't stop at 3 o'clock,” Long said. “Because kids are learning everywhere all the time, badges become a great way to harness that learning through different assets in the community.”

Organizations in Dallas, Columbus, Ohio, Washington and Los Angeles adopted similar programs this year, following examples set by Chicago in 2013. Spearheaded through mayoral support, 125 organizations issued badges to more than 200,000 Chicago kids.

Critics argue community organizations can be too free-wheeling with badges by credentialing experiences that wouldn't traditionally warrant special commendation.

“There is a wide range and a lot of freedom with it, but at the same time you need to be able to define these real-world skills and share them if you want to create meaningful pathways for kids to move beyond small skills and into a thoughtful career path,” said Nina Barbuto, founder and director at Assemble in Garfield, an arts and technology group.

Assemble's main badge gives credit for understanding the design process, she said. Others will reward skill mastery, such as computer programming or wire soldering.

TechShop Pittsburgh in Bakery Square approved weeklong technology and robotics camps. The Ellis School in Shadyside will host an all-girl STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camp to design and build hand-washing stations for a girls' school in Kenya.

A 16-month planning process will follow Pittsburgh's summer pilot program.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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