Make a splash with the Oceanography merit badge

Chris Lamie started teaching the Oceanography merit badge at the Merit Badge University at Harvard University when he was a Harvard sophomore. More than 15 years later, he’s still at it, teaching the popular badge to dozens of Scouts each year. Scouting caught up with him to find out what he has learned along the way.

Oceans and Deserts

Despite the merit badge’s name, Lamie says Scouts don’t have to visit an ocean to complete it. Only a few subrequirements involve trips to the water, and those are all found in requirements 7 and 8, which are “do one of the following” requirements. In other words, land-based choices are available.

Lamie does take his Scouts to the Charles River (more on that later), but field trips aren’t essential.

“I’m pretty sure you could be in the middle of the desert,” he says.

That said, he does think living near the ocean is helpful.

“Even if you don’t visit the ocean for the badge, people have life experiences they can relate to, like watching a house erode off a cliff into the ocean on the news, visiting the ocean during a storm or feeling the way the weather is at the beach,” he says.

Making it Real

The badge’s nine requirements are packed with terms like “tidal bore” and “abyssal plain.”

To make sure Scouts do more than regurgitate definitions, Lamie has come up with fun ways to bring the words to life. For example, to demonstrate the relationship between salinity and density, he has Scouts make their own salt water and try to get a hard-boiled egg to float.

Even more fun is the game he uses to demonstrate plate tectonics, the phenomenon that creates mountains, underwater features and earthquakes. The only equipment required: one Double Stuf Oreo cookie per Scout.

“They snap the top layer in half, then push the two pieces together, pull them apart or drive them alongside each other,” he says. “The filling is the magma.”

On the Road

One of Lamie’s trademark moments is a field trip to the Charles River, which runs by Harvard. Once there, Scouts use simple homemade plankton nets made of nylon hose and plastic cups — the instructions are in the merit badge pamphlet — to collect plankton.

“Microscopic plankton and bigger things like bits of leaves and so on tend to get stuck inside,” he says. “The longer you tow it through the water, the more those things get concentrated in the cup down at the toe.”

Because the merit badge university occurs in the spring, Lamie’s Scouts often come up empty, at least where plankton are concerned, so he has pre-prepared slides in the lab that Scouts can study under a microscope.

“It’s a chance for them to get familiar with some tools and techniques they might end up using in school,” he says.

Although he gets positive feedback on his classes, Lamie is never satisfied.

“I’m always trying to find new ways to teach this,” he says. “That’s something I’d recommend to anybody: Keep tweaking it to find the most effective ways to help the Scouts learn.”

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