Scouting magazine

STEM activities to reinvigorate your Scouts’ focus on science, technology, engineering or math

Science, technology, engineering and math —known as STEM — is, and will continue to be, alive and well in traditional Scouting. Leaders don’t have to be a rocket scientist to engage Scouts in exciting STEM activities.

Now, perhaps more than ever, the BSA makes STEM-related activities and programs achievable for units with leaders of all backgrounds and interests.

If you know guys and girls who like experiments that are primarily “laboratory science,” tell them about the new STEM Scouts program. If they’re interested in outdoor activities with experiments that are primarily “kitchen science,” STEM programs in traditional Scouting have them covered.

Trent Nichols, M.D., Ph.D., national director of STEM programs, says STEM learning has been a part of traditional Scouting for more than 100 years — even if the four-letter acronym is relatively new. The BSA’s Nova and Supernova awards, launched in 2012, are aimed at reinvigorating existing STEM-related Scouting programs by encouraging Scouts to explore areas of interest with the help of an adult counselor or mentor.

To add STEM to your traditional unit’s program, first familiarize yourself with the information at scouting.org/stem. There you’ll learn more about the program structure and the different Nova award requirements for Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers. You can also take the Fast Start STEM Orientation training available on my.scouting.org. Then pick up a NOVA guidebook ($3.49) at scoutstuff.org or at your local Scout shop.

It’s also a good idea to seek advice for getting started from a district- or council-level STEM committee chair. Next, talk to the leaders and parents in your unit to learn more about their backgrounds. Does anyone currently work in a STEM-related occupation?

If there is an engineer in your fold, he or she could be the perfect person to detail how engineers create cool things like theme-park rides, hiking boots, snowboards or carbon-fiber bicycles, among other things.

Any adult can serve as a Nova counselor or Supernova mentor to assist youth in earning awards, as long as he or she completes Youth Protection training and has relevant experience. This volunteer will also need to complete an adult application, though no registration fee is required.

Let the Fun Begin
Once your unit has a Nova counselor or Supernova mentor (or two) in place, the fun really begins. As a unit leader, you can support these roles within your pack, troop or crew by encouraging attendance at roundtables in your district or by fostering partnerships with local professionals, businesses, schools or nonprofits.

These entities have a vested interest in the community and in STEM. Dr. Richard Stone, STEM promotions coordinator, says finding these partnerships isn’t as difficult as it seems.

“Every town has a TV station or airport or manufacturing organization. We aren’t experts in these areas, but our peers in the non-Scouting world can bring their message to the audience,” he says. “Partner with those experts. It’s great for the council to be a part of the community, and those partners get benefits from working with Scouting.”

While Stone’s district benefits from partnering with experts who work in NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., he emphasizes that a unit need not have access to astrophysicists to create quality STEM activities. Professional welders, ham radio operators, repairmen and the like are in every community and might be willing to share their expertise with Scouts.

STEM 101
Partnerships with local universities have proven fruitful for the Greater St. Louis Area Council. The University of Missouri–St. Louis and Southeast Missouri State University host the council’s STEM University events.

On two Saturdays every winter, approximately 1,200 students work on at least one Nova award at STEM University. The colleges don’t charge for the use of facilities, and professors who are on winter break help out with the events.

“These schools understand the importance of what we are doing,” says Tom Kroenung, director of STEM programs for the council.

Units in the Silicon Valley Monterey Bay Council benefit from the valuable tools purchased from Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT), a California-based nonprofit focused on hands-on teaching. RAFT’s plans make it easy for volunteers to grasp difficult concepts before bringing them to Scouts, says Ron Schoenmehl, director of field service for the council.

“A mom or dad doesn’t want to be made to look stupid in front of their kids. So through adult leader training, they have a chance to make mistakes and learn from them,” Schoenmehl says.

The payoff for this hard work, Kroenung says, is seeing a Scout pursuing further STEM education as a result of the Nova/Supernova award programs. And with the STEM Scouts program joining the mix, the BSA is doubling down on its efforts to meet the needs of today’s young people.

“What pushes us is to mold the young people — that next generation that makes America strong,” he says. “It’s up to us to take it to the next level to make a big impact.”


Nova and Supernova … What’s the Difference?
The Nova awards program is designed for Cub Scouts, Webelos Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers. Each award (four total) covers one component of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Scouts earn a patch for the first award completed and a pin for each subsequent achievement.

The Supernova awards program is more rigorous than the Nova awards. These awards recognize in-depth achievements in STEM-related exploration and require earning three or more Nova awards. Scouts earn a medal and certificate for achieving the Supernova award.

Find more info at scouting.org/stem.


Need STEM activity ideas? Try these resources.
Check out boyslife.org
 for fun do-it-yourself experiments, a look at a future space settlement, a science campout feature and much more.

Stay up to date on traditional STEM program news by clicking on  blog.scoutingmagazine.org/category/stem.

Listen to the STEM-themed March 2015 episode of ScoutCast, a podcast designed especially for volunteer leaders: scouting.org/scoutcast.

Visit local BSA council websites, which highlight STEM activities or roundtables in your area. Ask your district or council STEM chairman about upcoming activities, too.

Check out Pinterest — it’s not just for home-décor inspiration! A quick search for “STEM activities” renders a treasure trove of activities that require little expertise or resources.

Try one of the free webinars available at the PBS Teachers STEM Education Resource Center, found at pbs.org/teachers/stem.

Follow STEM Scouts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram by searching for “STEM Scouts.”