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Ideas for teaching STEM-subject merit badges

By Bryan Wendell, Excerpts courtesy May-June 2012 issue of Scouting magazine

IN NASHUA, N.H., you're less than an hour's drive from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the headquarters of defense contractor Raytheon, and the home of iRobot, creators of the Roomba, a vacuum cleaner that thinks for itself.

But five years ago, Dan Bush and fellow Scouter Frank Heitkamp realized something troubling. Despite living in such a tech-rich region, hardly any Scouts there were earning merit badges related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

"Here we are in this technical hotspot, and even we can't get kids interested," Bush says. "If kids try it, they might like it, and if they like it, they might make a career out of it." With that in mind, Bush, Heitkamp, Whitney Newey, and others formed the Math Science Technology Merit Badge and Career Expo in 2007. Today, nearly 300 Scouts each pick two of the 42 merit badges offered. Pretty much every STEM-focused badge is available, including Architecture, Electronics, Oceanography, newcomers Inventing and Robotics, and yes, even Insect Study.

The event is so popular Scouts from several states sign up months in advance. Bush and his committee contact nearby college and businesses to find subject-matter experts to teach the merit badges – and they contact him each year to offer their services to inspire the next generation of scientists, doctors and engineers.

Merit badges are earned over two Saturdays. The first is for classroom instruction—two-and-a-half hours for each of the Scout's two merit badge choices. In between the sessions, there's a break for lunch and a career expo where companies and universities show off their toys. The STEM smorgasbord introduces Scouts to subjects that might be off their radar, and features keynote speakers like Hugh Herr, who invents high-tech leg prostheses, or John Warner, who defined the term "green chemistry." The expo makes the event unique, but what really sets it apart are the field trips. Two weeks after the classroom day, each class of about 12 Scouts meets their counselors at businesses, universities, or research facilities near Nashua to get their hands dirty. For Composite Materials, Scouts create their own baseball bat at a working Major League Baseball laboratory. For Public Health, they tour a water plant. Nuclear Science offers an inside look at an MIT fusion lab, while Oceanography students visit Cat Cove Marine Laboratory.

"It's replicable," Bush says. "Every community has these resources. Just ask yourself – how can we tap into them?" Learn more about the Math Science Technology Merit Badge and Career Expo at yccbsa.org.

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