Ideas for teaching STEM-subject merit badges

IN NASHUA, N.H., you’re less than an hour’s drive from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the headquarters of defense contractor Raytheon, and the home of iRobot, creators of the Roomba, a vacuum cleaner that thinks for itself.

You might not expect rocks to be involved in an event focused on math, science, and technology. But this New Hampshire gathering exposes Scouts to nontraditional topics such as geology (below). Jim Frey, assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 28 in Dunstable, Mass., uses his college degree in geological engineering to discuss rock types with Scouts. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Hill.)

You might not expect rocks to be involved in an event focused on math, science, and technology. But this New Hampshire gathering exposes Scouts to nontraditional topics such as geology (below). Jim Frey, assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 28 in Dunstable, Mass., uses his college degree in geological engineering to discuss rock types with Scouts. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Hill.)

But five years ago, Dan Bush and fellow Scouter Frank Heitkamp realized something troubling. Despite living in such a tech-rich region, hardly any Scouts there were earning merit badges related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“Here we are in this technical hotspot, and even we can’t get kids interested,” Bush says. “If kids try it, they might like it, and if they like it, they might make a career out of it.”

With that in mind, Bush, Heitkamp, Whitney Newey, and others formed the Math Science Technology Merit Badge and Career Expo in 2007 at the Nashua Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The event has been a hit every year since. Today, nearly 300 Scouts each pick two of the 42 merit badges offered. Pretty much every STEM-focused badge is available, including Architecture, Electronics, Oceanography, newcomers Inventing and Robotics, and yes, even Insect Study. If there’s a Scout willing to “compare the life histories of a butterfly and a grasshopper,” Bush won’t stand in his way.

“People have asked me, ‘Why do you include Insect Study?’ I say, if I can get 12 kids into that class, that’s a glorious thing. If I can only get three, it’s still a glorious thing,” Bush says. “It’s three who wouldn’t get a chance otherwise.”

How popular has the merit badge and career expo become? Even though it takes place in March, a third of the attendees sign up on Thanksgiving weekend—right when registration opens. Scouts from Vermont, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire travel hours to earn merit badges their troops can’t offer.

The event’s success stems from its overcoming a problem plaguing many STEM merit badges: the lack of qualified instructors. Consider Composite Materials, introduced at the 2005 National Scout Jamboree and one of the BSA’s least-earned badges.

“It’s not that Scouts aren’t interested,” Bush says. “It’s just that there’s not the opportunity in the average troop to teach Composite Materials.”

Five years ago, Bush and his committee solved that problem by relentlessly contacting nearby colleges and businesses to find subject-matter experts. Now the tables have turned. The counselors contact Bush each year to offer their services, gladly returning to Nashua to inspire the next generation of scientists, doctors, and engineers.

The event takes place over two Saturdays. The first, held at the LDS church, is for classroom instruction—two-and-a-half hours for each of the Scout’s two merit badge choices. In between the sessions, there’s a break for lunch, but if you’re picturing the typical grab-and-go affair, think again.

Instead, Scouts attend a lunchtime career expo where companies and universities show off their toys. The STEM smorgasbord introduces Scouts to subjects that might be off their radar. A boy strolling by the exhibit for the Lemelson-MIT Program—dubbed the “Oscars for Inventors”—might be inspired to take Inventing merit badge next year. Or better yet, he could dream up the next breakthrough invention and turn it into a career.

The career expo features keynote speakers like Hugh Herr, who invents high-tech leg prostheses, or John Warner, who defined the term “green chemistry.” The expo makes the event unique, but what really sets it apart are the field trips. Two weeks after the classroom day, each class of about 12 Scouts meets their counselors at businesses, universities, or research facilities near Nashua to get their hands dirty.

For Composite Materials, Scouts create their own baseball bat at a working Major League Baseball laboratory. For Public Health, they tour a water plant. Nuclear Science offers an inside look at an MIT fusion lab, while Oceanography students visit Cat Cove Marine Laboratory.

Look at a merit badge pamphlet. At the top of the requirements list, you’ll mainly find sedentary verbs like describe, discuss, or define. The active stuff is at the bottom: build, visit, create. Most merit badge instructors, Bush says, devote too much time to the top of the list.

“We had to understand that the usual way merit badges are attacked in Scouts is from the top to the bottom,” he says. “Scouts spend a lot of time on the research side, and they never really explore the vocational side of it. We wanted to attack it from the opposite direction.”

Another change: Not every merit badge offered can be completed in two Saturdays. Personal Management, for example, requires Scouts to track income, expenses, and savings for 13 consecutive weeks. Bush, an Eagle Scout, says only offering merit badges that can be finished in two days misses the point.

“We’re not a merit badge delivery system,” he says. “Counselors are not vending machines. You’re trying to give kids a spike in the brain and get their interest level up.”

Still, post-event surveys show 95 percent of Scouts who attend the expo complete their merit badges within 90 days. That’s because counselors provide homework assignments before the event, and they follow up with the 12 Scouts in their class after it’s over to make sure they’re not hitting any snags while finishing requirements.

Despite these unusual touches, Bush doesn’t see his event as one-of-a-kind.

“It’s replicable,” he says. “Every community has these resources. Just ask yourself: ‘How can we tap into them?’”

LEARN MORE about the Math Science Technology Merit Badge and Career Expo at yccbsa.org.

4 thoughts on “Ideas for teaching STEM-subject merit badges

  1. Pingback: Former astronaut shares how to get Scouts hooked on STEM subjects | Nullbox

  2. Pingback: Astronaut shares tips for getting Scouts hooked on STEM subjects - Scouting magazine

  3. Pingback: New Merit Badges

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