What a Blast!

By Richard M. Romney
Photographs By Vince Heptig

Hands-on experience, quality instructors, great facilities, and fun have made this Utah merit badge event a soaring success for 48 years.

Geoff Keene, Jason Robinson, Jared Pettit, Sam Pettit, and Ryan Bradshaw cheer as their Space Exploration merit badge rockets blast off from the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah.

"Five...," the crowd shouts, "four... three... two... one!" Ignition! Blast off! At that instant, 24 model rockets soar into the sky. Heads look up, tracking the smoke trails for nearly 1,000 feet until more puffs appear, parachutes pop out, and the rockets gently float back to earth.

Welcome to Space Exploration, one of 55 classes offered during the 48th annual Merit Badge Pow Wow at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and Utah Valley State College in Orem, and co-sponsored by the Utah National Parks Council. The 2003 merit badge extravaganza filled four hours on each of two consecutive Saturdays.

On the two campuses, 5,000 Scouts worked on badges from Atomic Energy to Veterinary Medicine. Their instructors were 500 volunteer professors and students knowledgeable in their fields, using state-of-the-art facilities and equipment. For each merit badge, a registered counselor oversaw the work of the volunteer instructors and then signed off on the application of those Scouts successfully completing all requirements.

Each Scout could enroll for as many as three classes. Some follow-up work on merit badge requirements was done at home, but by the end of the second Saturday session, an estimated 62 percent of Scouts had completed all requirements for a badge.

Space Exploration was popular because it (like many other classes) offered an ingredient that is key to merit badge instruction success: hands-on learning.

"In the class on the first Saturday, I teach them principles of rocketry and physics," explained Prabesh Nohani, a 21-year-old student volunteer from Nepal. "Then I give them their rocket kit to build at home. On the next Saturday, they return and attempt to launch their rockets."

Some Scouts were surprised at their rocket's speed and altitude. "I didn't think mine would fly that high," admitted Nathan Richey, 13, of Troop 557 from Mapleton, Utah. "But then it was like, wow, this is neat! And it's so cool watching all the rockets take off at once. You don't see that every day!"

Boom in a room

Woodworking counselor Eldon Greenhalgh guides Jamison Sermon at the drill press.

Nor do you often see a chemistry professor, dressed in a BSA uniform, safely exploding hydrogen-filled balloons in a lecture hall. Yet, that's what Dr. Marvin Kuchar has done at the annual event for several years, much to the delight of a capacity audience.

Why the Scout uniform? "It's good for the Scouts to see that so many of us in the community, no matter what our profession, are involved in Scouting," the professor said. And the balloon busting? "I also think it's great for them to see that science can be a lot of fun."

"We do all kinds of things to help the Scouts learn," said student volunteer Mary Ann Genzer, a zoology major from Memphis, Tenn., who assisted in the lab.

In addition to exploding balloons, she said, Chemistry merit badge classes included discussions on chromatography, proteins and carbohydrates, and why indicators change color when the acidity (pH) of a solution changes.

"It's neat to share something that I love with younger people who otherwise might not have this exposure until they're in college," she added.

Plunge into service

The story was the same at the swimming and diving pools at BYU's Richards Physical Education Building, where Sam Castor, a public relations student from Provo, was the assistant pool manager as well as the supervisor for volunteers.

"All merit badge instructors at the pool are college students and lifeguards, and most have been merit badge counselors at camps," Castor noted. "They really know what they're teaching, they know how to teach it well, and they do it as service because they love to work with kids."

The instruction and testing were thorough. Scouts worked both Saturdays on either the Swimming or Lifesaving merit badge. "The Scouts study each requirement and demonstrate each skill, and the instructors make sure they know what they're doing before they sign off," Castor said.

Helping hands

Travis Aldous demonstrates how to approach a calm and tired swimmer with Lifesaving instructor Mike Foncannon.

A visit to any session revealed another key reason why the event is so successful: great volunteers.

"Good teachers make a big difference, and to get good teachers, you've got to recruit well," said Scott Howell, assistant to the dean of BYU's Division of Continuing Education. Howell serves as instructor chairman for the merit badge event.

The two universities assign some faculty members to serve as merit badge instructors. And advisers to student clubs encourage their members to volunteer; for example, members of the UVSC rodeo club taught Horsemanship.

Many student instructors are motivated to volunteer because they receive credit for service hours or fulfill class assignments.

Students usually teach classes related to their major—Personal Management, for example, is taught by business management students.

Other volunteers help the operation run smoothly. Order of the Arrow members, equipped with a map and schedule of room locations, serve as campus guides, stationed at key points in many buildings and on outside crosswalks.

"There's no reason for anybody to get lost," said Stan Michelsen, who organizes the OA support. "And our Arrowmen really like to set an example of service for the younger boys."

Organizers make sure that volunteers are treated well and thanked. "Free doughnuts and a T-shirt may not seem like much," Howell said, "but they are a way of saying we appreciate what they've done."

Five decades

Guided by instructor Mike Foncannon, Scout Darren Faber practices CPR techniques.

The merit badge weekends have been an annual campus event for nearly half a century.

Many reasons account for this, such as the strong partnership between the schools and the Scout council, community involvement, mass mailings by the university of brochures to potential participants, and the allure of a chance to use college-level facilities, like the auto shop, science lab, or woodworking facility.

To judge success, organizers focus on the Scouts. If the boys have fun, learn, and move ahead with their advancement, then everybody wins.

Says Alexander Willey, 14, of Troop 1177 from Pleasant Grove, Utah: "I can come here and study chemistry, medicine, and space exploration, get several merit badges in one place—and know I really earned them."

It was Alexander's third year to attend the event, and he has never been disappointed. The weekends are always guaranteed to be a blast!

Writer Richard Romney lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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Copyright © 2004 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.