TopCoder believes that the MacArthur Foundation’s take on the badge system–creating a competition to find the best solution, as well as assigning digital badges to students—is a good idea, because by entering into a competitive environment, “participants understand they must bring their ‘A’ game—they must produce their best effort,” explained McKeown.

Badges and beyond

TopCoder is practicing what it preaches not just through its platform, but by hosting the “World Championship of Computer Programming,” a competition for computer programmers that also supports computer science and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities and challenges for K-12 students.

During this recent event, held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., TopCoder—which partners with NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—unveiled NoNameSite.com, which aims to “empower kids to exercise and develop their minds through games and challenges in a competitive, but safe, online environment,” said the company.

Students at the NoNameSite.com launch.

The site aims to become a top destination for the sixth through 12th grade demographic by “providing an ever-changing range of dynamic and fun activities that have the potential to develop innovative thinking and become building blocks for increasing complex CS-STEM-centric challenges,” said McKeown.

According to McKeown, measurement and value analysis programs will be matched with incentives and digital badges to maintain long-term player engagement.

The platform is expected to be a fully self-sustaining commercial entity by late 2012.

TopCoder also is working with NASA on an online platform called the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL), which was built by the TopCoder community in partnership with MIT. One of the first events of this lab is a competition called Zero Robotics—a robotics programming competition where the robots are SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) inside the International Space Station (ISS).

Students program the satellites to play a challenging game and can create, edit, share, save, simulate, and submit code, all from a web browser on the NTL site.

All tournaments are free, and all that’s needed to participate, said McKeown, is a team, mentorship, and the internet. An astronaut will conduct the championship competition in microgravity with a live broadcast from the ISS.

“There is widespread recognition that the U.S. faces a shortfall in qualified capable technologists in the very near future,” said McKeown. “Colleges and higher education are simply not graduating enough technology majors and traditional teaching systems are not able to respond quickly. Unless we embrace novel and innovative approaches to bolster the ranks of young people interested and engaged in critical thinking and analytical skills activities, we will have a problem of national importance, one that will impact our national security and prosperity.”

Duncan said the administration believes so much in the power of digital badges to help spur innovation that the Department of Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative will join the effort with a commitment to award a $25,000 prize for the best badge concept and prototype that serves veterans seeking good-paying jobs in today’s economy.

The competition, part of the MacArthur Foundation’s and Mozilla’s competition, will be called the “Badges for Heroes Challenge.”