On a recent afternoon at South Hills Middle School, a gorilla was anxious to bypass an icky swamp in order to deliver some bananas to a friend.

A gorilla puppet, that is, and a hypothetical swamp. And it was a number of middle school students and their kindergarten “mentees” who had to come up with an ingenious strategy for rescuing the bananas before they rotted.

The middle school “mentors” are all participants in the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Summer Dreamers Academy enrichment program. Interactive Story Adventures, which provides the puppets and problem-solving scenarios, is one of two dozen organizations throughout Pittsburgh working with the public schools to bring a rich array of learning opportunities to summer students. And learning they are. The student mentors, for example, are learning how to teach, collaborate, and tell stories each afternoon in the program.

But when traditional grades and class credits aren’t in the picture, how do they document all these new skills and experiences?

This year, Summer Dreamers is partnering with Cities of Learning, the Sprout Fund initiative (with support from the MacArthur Foundation) that turns Pittsburgh—and other cities—into dynamic “campuses” full of learning opportunities and digital badges designed to legitimize them.

Through Interactive Story Adventures, for example, Summer Dreamers students can receive badges for skills such as relationship-building and engineering design, all of which culminate in a Responsible Mentor badge.

Badging has been catching on in museums, libraries, and other informal education settings. Bringing badging into the formal learning space solves a persistent problem for the public schools, said James Doyle, the coordinator of after-school programs.

“One thing we know as a school district is we’re really good at measuring a student’s progress through very specific things,” he said. “In the math curriculum, we know specific benchmarks, and the grade doesn’t come up by happenstance.”

The district recognizes that learning occurs in countless places outside the walls of their buildings—or during afterschool and summer sessions—but evaluating and acknowledging informal learning has traditionally been a challenge. Badging, however, provides both evidence for the teachers and tangible recognition for the students, Doyle said.

The badges that students receive are archived in a digital portfolio that they might one day share with college admissions officers and potential employers as evidence of a diverse skillset.

“The requirements [for each badge] are supposed to be laid out right there when people are viewing it,” said Nate Rodda, educational programs coordinator at Heinz History Center, another Summer Dreamers/Cities of Learning partner. “There’s not a whole lot of guesswork about what something means.”

The district recognizes that learning occurs in countless places outside the walls of their buildings, but evaluating and acknowledging informal learning has traditionally been a challenge.
Rodda said the development of badges can be a helpful process for instructors as well, forcing them to reflect on the important benchmarks in their curricula and the skills they would like their students to pick up.

Rodda’s Summer Dreamers students are Pittsburgh’s History Detectives, researching the people and events that shaped their hometown, digging into mock archeology, and eventually pulling their new knowledge together in digital documentaries. The incoming sixth-graders have the option of earning nine distinct badges, including Pittsburgh Science and Industry Explainer and Digital Story Editor.

Next year, the History Center, which has worked with Summer Dreamers for five years, might restructure its badging program, Rodda said. Inconsistencies in attendance and the chaos that is inevitable in an afternoon summer education program for middle schoolers make systematically issuing nine badges to each student a challenge. Next time, the badges will likely correspond with more concentrated, single-day activities, he said.

The students are still getting used to badging, according to Rodda and Rachel Hermann, director of Interactive Story Adventures, a first-time Summer Dreamers partner. When Hermann’s program piloted badging with high school students in the spring, they were more receptive, but some middle school students have trouble grasping the purpose of a personal portfolio, she said. And many are simply encountering the concept of badges for the first time.

Like Rodda, Hermann praised the badges for helping the adults designing the curriculum. In Interactive Story Adventures, the students and teachers can fill out “evidence sheets” detailing the skills the mentors have accomplished that should earn them a certain badge. The process helps remind the students what they should work toward accomplishing.

“For us, it totally makes sense because our badges sort of serve as strategies,” Hermann said. “It really is helping structure our outcome goals as a program.” Sometimes the teachers act out a badge, charades-style, for the students to identify.

Meanwhile, the gorilla has successfully made it around the swamp. The young mentors and younger mentees engineered a car and built a prototype out of LEGOs, swiftly carrying the ripening bananas to safety.