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Digital Badges and Soft Skill Development: Teen Self-Assessment Beyond STEM Fields

Fri, April 17, 4:05 to 5:35pm, Virtual Room


STEM learning is typically centered on domain-specific practices (i.e., content knowledge, scientific method, math formulas). As a result, other interdisciplinary skills such as collaboration and leadership (Edwards, 2012), or culturally responsive practices may be overlooked (Ong et al., 2018). Using digital badges, we identified how a group of culturally diverse teens in an out-of-school program conceptualized the soft skills they developed as they engaged in peer-to-peer support, mentoring interactions, and exhibit interpretations with guests at a science center in the Pacific Northwest. With the teens and program staff, we co-designed and are currently implementing a digital badge program in which teens are awarded digital micro-credentials as symbols of their knowledge and skill development that allows them to collect and share their experiences through the web (Authors, 2016b; Pitt et al, 2019). What makes these badges unique is the opportunity for students to identify, reflect on, and share their interdisciplinary “soft skills” (Cimatti, 2016; Gibb, 2014) alongside their STEM skills (Casilli & Hickey, 2016). Examples of soft skills badges at the science center include Customer Service, Teamwork, Teaching, Leadership, and Good Employee.

Over the past four years, the digital badge program has evolved in scope and implementation. What started as a website for tracking students’ learning pathways within STEM domains is now a fully integrated platform in which students build personal profiles, curate portfolios, and communicate with program staff. Along with this integration, our research team conducted case studies with six of the over 60 students enrolled in the program. During the course of these case studies, we asked students to think about how science and technology, broadly speaking, were part of their daily lives (Taylor et al., 2018) both in and out of school. As our data corpus grew, we began to see trends that provided insight into the following research questions:
How do teens utilize digital badges to conceptualize the ways STEM skills and soft skills develop together?
How do teens employ soft skills developed in STEM contexts in other parts of their daily lives?

Based on interviews, experiencing sampling, and both at-work and at-home observations of the case study participants, our data provides evidence of how students interpolated their STEM experiences at the science center into other learning environments. Specifically, teens identified and analyzed how they became more comfortable working with coworkers, explaining difficult science concepts to others, and supporting institutional (i.e., museum) operations. Also, the portfolio feature of the digital badge platform became particularly useful for teens to assess their own soft skill abilities (c.f., Cimatti, 2016). Teens explained how they were able to transfer (Barnett & Ceci, 2002) their skills to other in-school and out-of-school activities beyond the science center (O’Byrne et al., 2015). In turn, the use of digital badges allowed them to conceptualize new opportunities for incorporating soft skills across a variety of contexts where STEM knowledge is in circulation.