By Megan Burks
At a maker space in the East Village called Fab Lab, a handful of people squeeze into a small room to watch a laser cut a diamond design from cardboard. It is a prototype for a pendant that will eventually be made out of acrylic.
Skylar Pacheco-Rodriguez, 20, and her colleagues are learning to make necklaces for a lesson on modern manufacturing.
“We took the things that we drew on paper, transferred it over to the computer, then sent the data to the laser, and it etched out our own image,” Pacheco-Rodriguez said. She drew a cartoon cat with one alien-like eye.
“It says my cat’s name, Xochi. She doesn’t have one eye.”
When Pacheco-Rodriguez is done with the 13-hour course, she will earn a digital badge — kind of like the ones you sew onto scout uniforms, but for her LinkedIn résumé or Facebook profile.
Skylar Pacheco-Rodriguez shows off an etching of a cat named Xochi, March 7, 2017.
It is part of an online platform called LRNG that connects people to informal learning experiences in their communities. Connie Yowell, the former director of education at the MacArthur Foundation, developed the concept and is launching the app 12 U.S. cities.
Here in San Diego, Fab Lab and LRNG’s James Halliday spent 2016 recruiting organizations such as the San Diego Central Library and the San Diego Workforce Partnership to upload learning experiences to the platform. So far, you can get badges for everything from building a skateboard to attending business workshops.
“Digital badges are the wave of the future,” Halliday said. “Young people are going to be coming to you, not only with academic transcripts, letters of recommendation and summer experiences, but a whole backpack of digital badges that capture all the kinds of informal learning, personalized learning and online learning that they’ve done.”
Halliday said anyone can sign up for the platform. But it is geared toward 16- to 24-year-olds who want more than what a traditional school environment can offer, or who cannot afford a fancy summer camp. Some of the experiences are free; others require a membership or fee to use the facility and materials.
“We want young people in school and out of school for there to be the possibility of learning anywhere they want on their own terms, according to their own strengths, interests and values,” Halliday said. “And when you activate spaces like Fab Labs, and libraries and museums, in addition to the experiences that are happening in school, then you set them on a path to a career that (they) didn’t otherwise expect.”
It’s the kind of pathway educators across the county are trying to build more of through partnerships with universities and companies such as Qualcomm.
“Clearly our community aspires to be a global innovation leader,” said David Lopez, director of Teach For America San Diego. “But one of the things that we really need to live up to that aspiration is the kind of talent pipeline that is prepared to lead in the innovation sector. Right now, approximately 1 percent of our students from underserved communities are expected to graduate with a science, technology, engineering or mathematics degree, so obviously, there’s a big disconnect there.”
Teach For America San Diego is honoring Halliday Thursday at its inaugural Innovation in Education Awards, an event aimed at driving the conversation about linking education initiatives with the local economy.
Both Halliday and Lopez want to see more of what Pacheco-Rodriguez, a former foster child, experienced. A community nonprofit called Access connected her with the LRNG course on manufacturing Monday. By Tuesday, she had radically changed direction.
Instead of pursuing psychology, she wants to work with her hands as an environmental engineer.
“Coming here showed me that I can do all of my art and make it real instead of on a paper. I can put it on a necklace, I can learn how to make it 3-D,” Pacheco-Rodriguez said. “So it changed my whole idea of (how) I wanted to proceed in my life.”
She is already planning to change her class schedule.
“I’m literally going to wipe all that off and whatever they show me at City College this week, I’m going to try to look into some more, because it’s what I want to do. It’s really cool.”
LRNG is looking for more organizations and agencies to offer up learning experiences. And it is looking for San Diegans — young and old, alone or in a group — to use the city as a classroom.