Valuing Badges and the California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences is appreciative of the opportunity to participate in the CSTEMBE initiative, alongside many impressive and inspiring youth-serving organizations in Chicago (and one in New York.) This coincides well with our own interests and efforts to explore digital badging for our own constituencies that we interact with at our science institution.

Unlike other institutions involved in CSTEMBE, the Cal Academy is in a preparatory, consultative stage in our badging development cycle. I have been leading up a series of consultations at the Academy among key staff on digital badging, which has resulted in several insightful conversations and brainstorms. We’ve also participated in meetings with other local youth-serving organizations and funders on the potential role for digital badging in the Bay Area.

One key area that has been highlighted by our conversations is the issue of value placed on badges by the earners. That is, if the stakeholders who are involved in our programs with digital badges don’t see any intrinsic or extrinsic value in the badges, our efforts are for naught.

As a bit of context, the California Academy of Sciences is a large, complicated science institution, comprised of multiple divisions and departments, including research, exhibits, marketing, public engagement, education, digital engagement, membership, and development. Each of these sections works with different stakeholders, reaches different audiences, and have differing emphases and priorities. Of course we all work under the same larger mission (“explore, explain and sustain life”) and the same guiding principles.

In our internal conversations with our staff, they have raised some fundamental concerns about the value of digital badges. One staff person asked how do we frame very conceptual learning goals like “employs systems thinking” and “tests hypotheses” into badges that a kid would both understand and find value in achieving. Another asked about building tangible rewards into your badging system so that it seems worthwhile to the potential earner. We also discussed if the same badging system could be used by families — i.e. adults and children together — earning badges either as a family or as individuals.

Among the possible stakeholders that might be prime “earners” of badges, we’ve identified some possible early adopters:

  • our Academy youth community, including our Careers in Science interns, TASC Force youth, and Digital TechTeens
  • youth who participate in workshops, camps, and other short-term experiences at the Academy
  • the hundreds of teachers and educators that come through our various professional development programs

In addition, we’ve discussed the value of having our members and volunteers earn badges for various activities and programs they engage in at the Academy, as a way to drive further engagements and signify what they have learned.

Externally, we were interested in finding out who else in the San Francisco Bay Area was using digital badges for learning. We connected electronically and face-to-face with dozens of informal learning institutions, public media providers, and youth-serving non-profits to see what was up. So far, we have found out that, while there is a lot of interest in digital badging, no local educational institution has fully implemented a badging system.

Our next steps at the Academy are to continue to explore how we might pilot badging at the Academy over the next years, to converse further with our external partners about badging, and to survey our youth community about their own views on digital badges.

In addition we are participating in piloting a badging initiative as part of Hive Global, a network of local “collaboratories” that brings together youth-serving organizations in a particular area to collaborate on ways to better serve their youth. Several Hive networks, including the San Francisco Bay Area ( ), New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh, will be initiating a badge system for educators, probably focused on networking and collaboration skills.

Through all of this, we are confident that we are going to gain insights into how digital badging fits into our larger mission to explore, explain and sustain life.

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