Investigating Digital Badges as Alternative Credentials to Broaden STEM Participation Among Underrepresented Youth

Sponsor: Education Development Center

Wendy Martin [email protected] (Principal Investigator)
James Diamond (Former Principal Investigator)
Marc Lesser (Former Co-Principal Investigator)


The project will develop and research an innovative credentialing process called Design League Badge Portfolios. (A digital badge, like a badge earned in a scout troop, is a validated indicator of accomplishment or skill that is housed and managed online and can be earned in informal or formal environments.) The process will give underserved youth a technology-supported method for presenting their Information Communication Technology (ICT) achievements in an out-of-school program in ways that are personally meaningful and that address the expectations of higher education institutions. Digital badge systems have the potential to become alternative credentialing methods. Beginning in the fall of each school year, high school participants meet weekly for several hours in an afterschool program that teaches them human-centered design principles and practices. The youth identify two or three social problems they would like to take on in a design project. Over the following months, they learn to interview end users who will benefit from the technology, and to brainstorm and prototype technological solutions. They use CAD software, 3D printers, microprocessors, simple motors, building materials, hand tools, and other design technologies to create, and in some cases code, their prototypes. Students also integrate user, peer, and expert feedback into their prototypes. The project partners (Educational Development Center, Mouse, DreamYard Project, and Parsons School of Design) will redesign the existing Design League badge system, with input from current and former Design League youth participants, and formalize a procedure for Parsons administrators (and eventually other higher education institutions) to endorse badges as admissions credentials in its undergraduate programs.

The project will investigate whether a group of 11th-grade high school students who engage in at least some of the activities for building a digital badge portfolio will be more likely than a comparison group of students who do not to express interest in ICT as a career or academic opportunity, to persist in ICT-related higher education and employment pursuits, and to envision themselves in those careers in the near future. The project will implement design and research in three phases: (1) Program Expansion, Iterative Development, Formative Testing, and Documentation; (2) Feasibility Testing of the research instruments and analysis methods adequately; and (3) Pilot Testing of whether and how the creation of Design League badge portfolios shows promise of supporting underrepresented youth to persist in STEM and ICT pursuits. Project research will contribute knowledge to research and development communities about alternative credentialing methods, particularly for underserved youth. The research findings will help determine whether digital badge portfolio systems that bridge out-of-school learning activities and the college admissions process show evidence of promise as tools to increase underrepresented youth persistence in STEM activities, at a time when digital badge and other alternative credentialing systems are proliferating. Documentation of the collaboration processes among project partners will enable future partnerships between informal learning organizations and higher education institutions to create badge systems that can used to assign meaningful credentials to personally meaningful experiences into college and career pathways.

This project is funded by the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program that supports projects that build understandings of best practices, program elements, contexts and processes contributing to engaging students in learning and developing interest in STEM, information and communications technology (ICT), computer science, and related STEM content and careers.

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