Great Times at Merit Badge U

By John H. Ostdick
Photographs By Dan Bryant

Alpha Phi Omega, the national service fraternity, hosts a day on the University of Texas campus in Austin for Boy Scouts and Venturers to work on merit badges and other outdoor skills.

Joshua Davis of Troop 210, Schulenburg, Tex., examines a pig's skull while visiting a biology lab on the University of Texas campus.

On a clear, breezy springlike day in February, Boy Scouts huddle around four professional surveyors and an orange survey tripod outside the Chemical Petroleum Engineering building on the University of Texas (U.T.) campus in Austin.

As a trim, bearded man ticks off marker readings, the Scouts scribble elevation figures and work the math of the trade. They line up a mark across the street, and, sure enough, they see the landmark U.T. Tower peeking above the campus buildings beyond.

The boys are among 1,300 Boy Scouts and Venturers attending the one-day Merit Badge University (MBU) on the U.T. campus. The annual event, hosted by Alpha Phi Omega (APO), the national service fraternity [see box on next page], brings together 200 volunteer instructors for a whirlwind day of exploration and learning.

In just four years, the young men and women from Alpha Rho, one of the nation's largest APO chapters, have turned a modest weekend merit badge fair into a mega learning opportunity that utilizes many of the U.T. campus resources.

"About four years ago we visited a merit badge event in San Antonio that had about 1,000 kids in attendance," explains Billy Russell, an Eagle Scout and Alpha Rho's service vice president. "We decided to hold a similar event in Austin, but we started at the district level and only had 47 Scouts the first year."

The following year, Alpha Rho opened the MBU to the entire Capitol Area Council, anticipating an attendance of just 200 Scouts. The surprising turnout of 600 was a bit overwhelming, Russell recalls.

In March 2003, the college students were better prepared for the 1,000 Scouts who swarmed the College of Engineering complex, site of the weekend program. The boost in attendance was helped by the addition of classes for new Boy Scouts and Venturers and leadership sessions for adults. In addition to the Austin area, attendees came from Houston and Corpus Christi to the south and Dallas-Fort Worth to the north.

Quality resources, instruction

Wilson Bauer of Troop 399 sights a marker to measure elevations for the Surveying merit badge.

"This is the largest and most successful event in the Capitol Area Council, and these Alpha Rho kids did it all," says attorney Jim Mallios, a unit commissioner in the council's Longhorn District, who is dressed as Benjamin Franklin to teach a Citizenship in the Nation merit badge class.

Scouter Tim Francis is well familiar with the MBU. As a university student he served as coordinator for the original event, and in 2003 he brought 11 Scouts from Troop 791 in the Sam Houston Area Council to Austin. "The resources here let the boys complete requirements for some merit badges they wouldn't find elsewhere," he says.

Scouter Barry Taylor, who heard about the MBU at a roundtable meeting, brought 16 Scouts, ages 11 to 17, from Troop 199 in Cedar Park, outside Austin.

"The boys can work on up to four merit badges in a day," he notes. "And my Scouts say they actually enjoy the classes, which speaks volumes about the quality of instruction."

The alliance with U.T. and its College of Engineering gives the Austin event a special appeal.

"A merit badge university like this not only provides Scouts the opportunity to earn the required badges for Eagle," notes John Van Overloop, 2004 MBU project coordinator, "but it also gives them the experience of visiting a college campus and interacting with faculty and community professionals."

From 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the engineering complex hosts about 30 merit badge classes. Many begin in a classroom but then move outdoors or to other campus facilities.

For example, after a classroom briefing, the Architecture and Landscape Architecture classes relocated to the sun-strewn campus to study the university's buildings and grounds.

But merit badge study isn't the only advancement work available.

Venturers visit the campus archery range to work on the Shooting Sports elective for their Ranger Award, and younger Boy Scouts work on Tenderfoot rank requirements at task-oriented skill stations.

High-flying simulation

Scouts test their landing craft for the Space Exploration merit badge to see if an egg can survive a one-story drop.

One of the most popular experiences is the university's Flight Link Advanced Simulation System, where Aviation merit badge instructors use flight simulators to provide Scouts with the sensation of actually flying an aircraft.

Clint Kam, a senior aerospace engineering student and MBU volunteer, walks each Scout through the simulation process.

Nearby, Tina Wang, another student volunteer, guides Second Class Scout Michael Newton of Austin Troop 457 through his initial "flight" inside a jet fighter simulator.

"Wait until this number gets to 1,700 and then you are going to push the wheel slowly forward, to inch along the runway for takeoff," Wang instructs.

Michael gains speed as he "taxis" down the imaginary runway on the screen in front of him. The simulator recreates all the jolting noises associated with a jet takeoff as Wang announces: "When you reach 150 knots, take off!"

"Oh, wow, I am taking off!" Michael exclaims.

"Altitude, altitude," an emotionless voice from the simulator intones. "You need to pull up," Wang urges gently.

"I am pulling up!" Newton protests. "Oh, yeah, woooo. Bring on a dogfight!"

Egg drop on a budget

Life Scout Clark Fiedler of Troop 162 surveys distances between markers.

High-tech gear is a special bonus, but the MBU relies heavily on the quality of its human resources, such as Joseph L. Williams Jr., who works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Williams, an APO alumnus who is in his third year of volunteering at MBU, leads the Space Exploration class through the process of budgeting, planning, and constructing a space landing craft that must protect a raw egg during a perilous one-story drop.

"First, sketch what your lander will look like, then build it from that sketch," Williams tells the class.

Each team gets a budget and picks items to buy from the lander construction supply sheet. Tracking expenses is important, Williams warns them. "You can build your lander any way you want, but you can't go over budget."

As the teams move outside to a courtyard landing, Second Class Scout Dylan Baddour of Austin Troop 146 says: "This is my favorite class. I like the fact that they actually got somebody from NASA to teach it."

He's skeptical about the success of his team's egg-protecting design, and his hunch is proved when the lander gets close to the mark but the egg breaks.

Second Class Scout Nicholas Barth of Georgetown Troop 155 is more optimistic. His lander soon reaches ground just south of the mark, egg intact. A few minutes later, Nicholas is all smiles: "Whoo-hoo, we won!"

As Scouts head off to lunch during the midday break, Joseph Williams notes that NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is a supporter of Scouting. He said the agency head wants to increase NASA's involvement with helping Boy Scouts earn the Space Exploration merit badge.

The final tally

Exploration and leadership prove buzzwords for the day.

"Learning and leadership, college and Scouting, U.T. and Merit Badge University—I hope you see the connections," Dr. Robert H. Bishop told the assembled participants. Dr. Bishop is professor and chairman of U.T.'s aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics departments.

"I meet many students, and I detect a noticeable difference in those who participate in Scouting and Venturing. And I take special note of Eagle Scouts. They are my leaders; it's just that simple."

Watching the Alpha Rho volunteers move in and out of the MBU's volunteer center, a lecture hall turned smorgasbord of merit badge college supplies, Bishop's observations are evident.

Amid piles of pencils, pens, pads, clipboards, crayons, paper clips, staplers, glue, batteries, rubber bands, calculators, and computers tracking the day's activities, volunteers move in and out of the room in a constant blur of motion. They are directing traffic, solving problems, and issuing instructions with two-way radios. Then it's time to set up dining tables for 1,400 people and coordinate pizza deliveries. Participants consume 360 pizzas and 1,600 soft drinks.

Afterward they clean up the area, break down the tables and chairs, and return them to storage.

At day's end, the Scouts have completed requirements for 1,016 merit badges and accumulate another 3,332 partials to be completed in their home units; 207 adults receive basic and advanced instruction; the U.T. band makes a thunderous appearance to honor the Scouts. Impressive totals for one day of fun and learning.

Freelance writer John H. Ostdick lives in Dallas, Tex.

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