MaiVi Nguyen, Jessica Harkleroad, Sarai Estrada, Jorge Sanchez and Garret Lowry. (L to R) with spectrophotometer (on left) and micropipettes (on right) at Del Lago Academy in Escondido.

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Students at the Del Lago Academy are not just going for a good grade in their biochemistry class. They’re also trying to earn “digital badges” they hope will land them internships in the region’s burgeoning biotech industry – and help them throughout their careers.

A digital badge is an online representation of skills students acquire through a credible organization like the Del Lago Academy, the science-themed high school they attend in Escondido north of San Diego.  Students will be able to combine multiple badges from different issuers to tell a more complete story of their skills and achievements. The badges will be displayed online, and could be shared with potential employers  or universities.

The Del Lago Academy digital badge program is thought to be the first in California, and perhaps in the United States, that will help track student competency on  science and engineering practices associated with the Next Generation Science Standards, according to Sara Collins Lench, director of the Assessment for Learning Project, which recently awarded the school a $50,000 grant.  It was one of 12 grants made nationwide.

“It is a really powerful mechanism to connect learning to real work experiences, and a powerful way for the community and schools to broker a connection with the biotechnology community,” Lench said. “This is the beginning of a new way of thinking over how we assess learning and attach value to it.”

A few months ago, 10th-grader Jorge Sanchez and a few of his classmates wanted to conduct an experiment to determine how much caffeine is contained in Purple Rain, an energy drink.

No problem for Sanchez, who learned  in a biochemistry class how to operate a spectrophotometer – a suitcase-sized machine that measures the amount of light reflected or absorbed by an object.

In the classroom at this 680-student school in the Escondido Union High School District, he placed a few drops of the Purple Rain drink in the machine, ran the light tests, and made assumptions on the highly caffeinated drink based on how much light was absorbed by the red dye. “There’s a lot of caffeine,” Sanchez said.

The work, and that of his classmates Sarai Estrada, MaiVi Nguyen, Jessica Harkleroad and Garret Lowry, helped each of them earn”a digital badge” in spectrophotometry.

The five-student test group is helping to get the digital badge program off the ground. Starting this fall, the program will be opened up to all of Del Lago’s students to earn digital badges, where they’ll discuss their work through self-reflection on a yet-to-be-built website.

An online posting by Nguyen shows what she did to earn a spectrophotometry badge. In her “digital portfolio” she explains how to operate the spectrophotometer, and how light is absorbed and reflected in various objects. Besides the Purple Rain experiment, Nguyen explains how she conducted an experiment involving the concentration of protein in 2 percent milk and soy milk.

Another badge she earned for “measuring small volumes” shows a pipette inside of a circle. She explains how to demonstrate the proper technique for using a pipette and micropipette to reduce possible contamination in an experiment.

“I used to want to go to law school but after doing a lot of experiments, using the lab equipment, I found it really cool and fun,” said 16-year-old Nguyen, who was one of the first students to post a digital badge online.

The digital badges could follow students throughout their lifetimes, and can be displayed on their websites or blogs or be included in college applications or their résumés.

“We are really interested in seeing people develop practical skills,” said Brett Goldsmith, chief technology officer and founder of San Diego-based Nanomedical Diagnostics Inc., which is building a Lyme disease diagnostics tool. “The idea is to validate these kids with real-world skills, not just theory.”

Goldsmith said that teaching these students how to operate lab equipment at the high school level will give them a leg up over college graduates in many instances when they enter the job market.

Goldsmith and others in the local biotech community – including San Diego-based J. Craig Venter Institute, which conducts genomic research, and California State San Marcos and MiraCosta College – are helping Del Lago Academy science teachers Alec Barron and Alyssa Wallace develop the criteria for the school’s digital badges. The badges will show the student’s name, the description of the badge, what the student knows and can do, how the badge is earned, who issued it, sponsors who co-developed the badge and can validate its credibility, and how it aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards.

Some of the dozen or so proposed digital badges might include ones for “measuring small volumes;” hypothesis formation; data analysis; or how to use a pipette, which is a lab tool used to transport a measured volume of liquid; or a micrometer, which is a screw gauge used to measure things precisely.

“Our value is to shorten the amount of time needed to train new workers,” Barron said.

Support for the Del Lago program came from a $2 million grant awarded to the Assessment for Learning Project by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent a major overhaul of the nation’s approach toward teaching science in kindergarten through 12th grade. California students will be tested on new NGSS-aligned assessments in the 2018-19 school year, although many districts have already begun phasing in the new standards.

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