Then there's the nine-year-old Providence After School Alliance (PASA), which has become something of a national model in exploiting one of the hottest commodities in education these days: time.

Much of the national discussion on time has centered around extending the school day. But analysts say simply adding 15 or 20 minutes to the schedule — and doing more of the same — does not have much of an impact.

More promising is a PASA-like push for experiential, hands-on learning that can make math or science more interesting and, ideally, spark a broader interest in learning inside and outside of the classroom.

PASA sees its central role as facilitator: connecting well-meaning businesses and non-profits that may not have the staff or patience to navigate the school bureaucracy with kids they can serve.

Students in PASA's well-established middle school program, AfterZone, and its newer high school project, The Hub, take water samples from Narragansett Bay and use satellites to retrace their families' immigration to the United States.

On a recent afternoon, a small group of The Hub's Juanita Sanchez complex students learned how to build their own hot-air balloons in a program called "Wing It" run by Brown University engineering students.

First, a quick lesson on the phenomenon of thermal expansion. Then, a small square made of tinfoil, some birthday candles melted into place, and after some trial and error, a slowly expanding dry cleaner bag that lifted the makeshift contraption off the ground.

The Hub's offerings now qualify for academic credit, which is a coup in and of itself. But the organization is also awarding students digital badges — think on-line versions of Boy Scout badges — for completing a Hub course or engaging in a valuable, one-off activity.

Rhode Island College is already accepting the badges as part of the college application process. And PASA hopes to use data from the badge system for its own purposes in time — developing a more robust feel for students' interests and possible career paths.

Damian Ewens, director of The Hub, says he envisions an Amazon-style recommendation engine: 62 percent of the students who engaged in these four Hub activities went on to study film, say, or land an IT job.

PASA's offerings and digital badge system put the program at the leading edge of a national re-imagining of what, precisely, constitutes an education. Does it have to happen from 9 am to 3:30 pm? Does it have to be with a certified teacher?

Elena Silva, a senior associate with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, says educators have long pondered a move from the standard measure of educational attainment — seat time — to a competency-based system: analyzing what students have learned, regardless of where they've learned it.

But the idea has only become viable in recent years, she says, with advances in technology; the Internet has made distance learning, for example, a real possibility.

Technological advance, though, doesn't guarantee success. The movement, she says, still has to answer the persistent question of how we can effectively measure out-of-school learning.

"There's a lot of people that sort of glibly say, 'Oh, we'll have badges or we'll do portfolios, we'll do performance-based assessment,' " Silva says, "and all of those things could work, and can work, and in some instances do work. But it's much easier said than done.

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