Scouting magazine

Help your Scouts earn the Signs, Signals and Codes merit badge

American Sign Language has its own grammar, syntax and dialects. Wigwag and semaphore both use flags but are completely different systems of communication. Deck crews on aircraft carriers use a number of hand signals to communicate with pilots and each other. Generally speaking, the more sides a traffic sign has, the more critical its message.

That’s just some of what Scouts will learn as they pursue the new Signs, Signals and Codes merit badge, which debuted last February. As the name implies, the badge covers a huge range of nonverbal communications techniques, from smoke signals to emoticons. Eagle Scout Tim Malaney of Chula Vista, Calif., who chaired the team that created the badge, says the goal is not so much to develop proficiency as it is to whet Scouts’ appetites to learn more. “If you have an interest, you can go further,” he says.

The emphasis on awareness over proficiency is a change from the Signaling merit badge, which was discontinued in 1991. To earn that badge in the 1940s, for example, Scouts had to send and receive Morse code at 35 letters per minute and semaphore signals at 30 letters per minute.

What’s Covered?
Signs, Signals and Codes covers a broad array of topics, including emergency communications, Morse code, American Sign Language, semaphore, Braille, trail signs, silent signals of all sorts, traffic signs, map symbols, emoticons and cryptography. While Scouts don’t have to show proficiency, they do have to use each form of communication; for several requirements, they must both read and create short messages. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for having fun,” Malaney says.

The badge also covers the history of communication. Scouts might be surprised to learn that before the introduction of the radio telegraph, “everything for communicating was line of sight,” Malaney says. For example, the ancient Greeks used chains of message beacons to communicate across long distances. The first “télégramme” was sent in 1794 in much the same manner, using an early form of semaphore.

How to Find Counselors
Given the broad range of topics the badge covers, Malaney acknowledges that it could be difficult to find expert merit badge counselors. One option, he says, is to identify a counselor with expertise in one area who could then educate herself about the other topics. Possibilities include ham radio operators, military personnel or teachers who know American Sign Language or Braille.

Another option would be to create a round-robin format in which Scouts work with several adults in different subject areas. “This badge lends itself to group instruction — with the group being a group of counselors,” Malaney says. (Note that the Guide to Advancement allows for “guest experts” who are not registered as merit badge counselors to assist in instruction; see section 7.0.3.2.)

Malaney also recommends that every counselor (and Scout) read the merit badge pamphlet cover to cover. “The editors did a great job,” he says. “I think the book’s easy to read and actually pretty fascinating.”