Merit Badge Clinic: A Laboratory for Learning

Fun and fieldwork make Environmental Science meaningful.

Scouts pursuing the Environmental Science merit badge during summer camp at New York’s Henderson Scout Reservation spend a lot of time at the dining hall. They go there to collect paper, cardboard, and glass for their recycling program. They go there to get aluminum roasting pans to use in experiments. They go there to set up particulate collectors—Dixie cups loaded with Vaseline and attached to trees near the loading dock.

The alternative, says merit badge counselor Don Tuttle, is a lot of time spent at the trading post. If he fails to capture Scouts’ attention, Tuttle said, “they end up at the trading post drinking Slurpees for the rest of the week.”

That’s not likely to happen in the veteran counselor’s classes, however. Tuttle, who earned a William T. Hornaday Award as a Scout, has been teaching Environmental Science since the badge was introduced. He also served as director of conservation training at Schiff Scout Reservation.

After 37 years of teaching Environmental Science, the retired high school science teacher has learned how to make the badge both informative and fun. Take those aluminum roasting pans from the dining hall, for example. To demonstrate ways to reduce the effects of an oil spill, Tuttle sets up pans representing oceans A, B, C, and D: the Atlantic, the “Bacific,” the Caribbean, and “da Indian.” Once the groans subside, he knows the Scouts are ready to listen—and learn. “I like to inject as much humor into the situation as I can,” he said. “I’ve had 65 years to polish my jokes.”

He’s also had plenty of time to learn about the nature of boys. He divides each day’s merit badge session in half, covering the classroom work first, when the boys are more alert, and the fieldwork later on.

Fieldwork is the key to Environmental Science, which makes it the perfect summer camp merit badge. “Environmental Science is best taught in the natural environment, and camp is the ideal vehicle to do that,” Tuttle said. “The natural environment is right outside their tent doors.”

Also outside their tent doors are more of those Dixie-cup particulate collectors. At the end of the week, Tuttle’s Scouts bring their cups to the nature lodge, tear off the sides, and look at what’s left under a microscope. “We get a good example of how different microenvironments produce different kinds of particulates: silt and soil, carbon soot particles from campfires, insect parts,” he said. “All sorts of things are floating in the air that nobody ever thought about seeing before.”

Beyond the experiments, Environmental Science does require some book learning. Scouts must define 19 terms ranging from biosphere to watershed. Tuttle said it’s easier to teach the terms by handling them in groups of related terms. For example, threatened species, endangered species, and extinction all go together.

He also readily embraces technologies that didn’t exist when he was a Scout. Recently a class was talking about the term brownfield. “One of the boys pulled out his PDA and had the definition two minutes before we could even look it up,” he said.

Tuttle thinks today’s Scouts are more aware than ever about environmental issues, even if they pretend otherwise. “If you can engage them, they’ll take to you and take to the teachings of the merit badge,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that any counselor can learn these things and put them into practice.”

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