Tips on Teaching the Public Health Merit Badge

Historically, the Public Health merit badge has been about as popular as washing dishes after a campout. (It ranked No. 120 in popularity in 2019.) But with COVID-19 on everyone’s mind, the badge is now attracting more interest.

How can you teach the badge effectively and make topics like vector control, morbidity and wastewater treatment sound interesting? We talked with two Public Health merit badge counselors: Alison Williams, vice president of clinical quality improvement for the Missouri Hospital Association, and Kayland Arrington, initiative director for the Cranston (R.I.) Health Equity Zone and an epidemiologist for the Rhode Island Department of Health.

Here’s what they told us.

Defining Terms

Scouts have to learn a lot of terminology for this badge, but perhaps the most important term appears in the badge’s name. Arrington, who holds a master’s degree in public health, thinks youth (and probably their parents) have only a hazy understanding of what public health is.

“They were thinking originally that it was just sort of the government or policies,” she says of the Scouts she taught this spring.

In reality, public health spans five stages: individual, interpersonal, organizational, community and public policy.

“I think it’s important to highlight something at each of those levels,” she says. “What you do personally and how you can influence your friends and what your neighborhood does — all that ultimately does affect the community as a whole.”

From Public to Personal

Williams, a registered nurse and Scout mom, emphasizes the personal aspects of public health — and the life experiences of the Scouts she works with. For example, when she does in-person classes, she’ll set up dishwashing stations for requirement 3, which relates to waterborne illnesses and sanitation.

“I also have them demonstrate how they wash their hands appropriately,” she says.

Arrington says she likes to focus on the personal when she teaches Scouts.

“I typically shy away from talking about personal responsibility too much in public health,” she says. “But I think it’s important for this age group to know what they are in control of, especially during a pandemic when things seem so out of control.”

Going Socratic

Both counselors favor the Socratic style of teaching: asking questions to discover and build on what Scouts know. And it turns out that some Scouts know a lot more than they might realize. When Arrington taught requirement 7 this spring, she spent a lot of time on automobile accidents (a leading cause of death for young people). After Scouts listed the common reasons — drunk driving, texting while driving, etc. — she posed some important questions.

“I asked them, ‘Have you ever known someone who’s done these things? What can you do instead of being in those positions?’” she says.

Measuring Success

Will life lessons like those sink in? While it’s hard to say, Williams says she knows her Scouts are learning important information.

Sometimes, it goes beyond the Scouts themselves.

“I’ve actually had a lot of parents, when we did the virtual programming, who would email me back and say, ‘Thank you for doing this. I actually learned a lot myself,’” she says. “That was kind of cool to see the parents with their Scouts learning together.”

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