Good news for local employers: thousands of local youth are finding that summer is about more than just fun in the sun. During their months off from school, thousands of students are participating in over 50 summer learning programs through The Sprout Fund-led Pittsburgh City of Learning.

City of Learning is a national campaign to spotlight local skill building programs—like those hosted by the Pittsburgh Public Schools Summer Dreamers Academy, The Pittsburgh Learn and Earn Summer Youth Employment Program, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and more—to youth and their parents.

“Young people are developing skills outside school through non-traditional paths with no grade or diploma to show for their work,” says Ryan Coon of The Sprout Fund.

Enter digital badges. More than a patch on a vest or a gold star on a chart, digital badges—stored in an online portfolio—are an easy new way to showcase accomplishments, skills and even artifacts the students have created.

DePaul University already recognizes them on its applications, and Coon says he hopes to get local universities on board with the program as well.

“The badges are a way to represent the skills in a verifiable way to college admissions people and potential employers,” says Coon.

To help employers learn more about the digital badges pilot project, The Sprout Fund is hosting the Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 21st the Trust Arts Education Center. It’s an invitation to the city’s major employers, workforce development organizations and government agencies to learn about how the digital badges can help recruit new talent.

“We want employers to use them and see how the badges work with their human resources goals and how they can use them to build a workforce,” says Coon.

The local educational programs—available through the Pittsburgh City of Learning website—offer opportunities to earn dozens of badges that provide job-ready skills, knowledge and “dispositions” (soft skills, like customer service and public speaking), says Coon.

For instance, at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, students can earn the Junior Naturalist badge by leading activities for summer camps. Or at the Carnegie Science Center, they can earn a Laser Cutting badge by learning how to use drawing software to create intricate shapes. Future broadcast journalists can earn badges for mastering audio editing and interviewing by working at Saturday Light Brigade Radio.

The badges are created by the individual program directors. For example, badges earned at the Summer Dream Academy are created by curriculum writers at the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Earlier this month, a group of 10- to 13-year-old girls built and programmed Lego EV3 robots, dissected sophisticated products at 4moms and met STEM professionals at Google Pittsburgh through Carnegie Mellon University’s “Programming Your Future with Robotics” camp. They earned badges in programming, STEM career awareness and collaborating with teams. High school students from the Girls of Steel FIRST robotics team who led the younger girls earned a mentoring badge.

Campers discover the components of a 4moms Mamaroo at CMU robotics camp earlier this month.

Earning the badges will prove beneficial to the campers in several ways, including having a digital record of the multiple activities of the camp for future applications to other programs, explains Theresa Richards, FIRST robotics program coordinator at CMU.

“They will have something to show for their learning at camp beyond a certificate of participation,” she says.

Lead support for the digital badges and Pittsburgh City of Learning is from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The summer campaign is also supported locally by Eat’n Park Hospitality Group.

It is an effort with “a lot of hope and promise,” says Coon.

Laurie Bailey

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.