I hiked around Ithaca, NY, the day before the 4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability at Cornell University, and happened upon a knickknack shop, where I found a cache of 1963 Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets. I bought two that I didn’t have already — Gardening and Bookbinding. Gardening was one of the original merit badges that were introduced in 1911. The Gardening pamphlet, at least the 1963 printing, was written by Professor Paul Work of Cornell University, probably in the 1940s when the material was copyrighted. Professor Work died in 1959, after a distinguished career, which included authoring The Tomato — you’ll see that Professor Work apparently liked to put faces to science, as part of the prefacing material to that book.
Image: The Gardening Merit Badge by Professor Paul Work. Click to enlarge.
I haven’t researched the history yet, but Boy Scout merit badges are my earliest recollection, as a scout myself, of formalized mechanisms of promoting lifelong and project-based learning through badging, and communicating science and technology to the public. Professor Work’s outreach on gardening may seem closer to hobbyist than to scientific material, but there is science outreach in that badge, and among the other 1911 merit badges were those that were clearly science outreach, including Astronomy, Ornithology (later Bird Study), Chemistry, and Electricity. Still others of the originals had sustainability connections as well, to include Conservation, Agriculture, and Forestry.
Image: Bridge in Cumberland Mountain State Park created by Lee Suydam for his Eagle Scout project (2005). Such projects, and there are many, are exemplars of project-based learning, though they are outside the scope of formal school curricula. Click to enlarge. Photo Credit: Douglas H. Fisher
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are one of the very first environmental groups in America, and while BSA has been “dragged kicking and screaming” into inclusiveness on some social issues (see Treehugger article), they have been environmentalists consistently. The current crop of sustainability-relevant merit badges are many: Animal Science; Architecture; Bird Study; Composite Materials; Energy; Environmental Science; Fish and Wildlife Management; Forestry; Geology; Insect Study; Landscape Architecture; Mammal Study; Mining in Society; Nature; Nuclear Science; Oceanography; Plant Science; Reptile and Amphibian Study; Soil and Water Conservation; and Sustainability. Moreover, among the required badges for Eagle Scout is either Environmental Science or Sustainability (choose at least one). A summary history of all merit badges, past and present, is an interesting read, …, for those interested (like me)!
After CompSust-2016, I went to Nashville’s Scout shop and picked up many of the study pamphlets for sustainability-related merit badges, and was gratified to find attention to climate change in the most recent Sustainability merit badge (instituted 2013), and as importantly, global warming, climate change, and greenhouse effects have found their way into the study pamphlets of older merit badges like Chemistry, Weather, Environmental Science, and others. This article in Treehugger points to exactly the satisfaction and mild surprise that I found in the BSA environmental record since I was last active.
BSA has a long history of technology-relevant merit badges too (e.g Machinery, 1911 – 1995). In “my day” there were badges on Computers (1967-2014), Electronics (1963 – ), Engineering (1967 – ), which has morphed and grown to include Digital Technology; Robotics; Programming; Geocaching; Game Design; Entrepreneurship; and Graphic Arts.
This brings me to a goal of infusing computational sustainability into the BSA merit badge system. Our NSF-funded network, CompSustNet, aspires to introduce and nurture outreach in K-12 that reaches far and wide, and that lasts well beyond the network’s NSF funding period. Scouting has a long and proven history of science and engineering outreach (as well as Arts and Humanities outreach — just look at the merit badge list), so its no surprise that we are investigating the outreach possibilities with scouting. While I have focused on BSA, which is integral to my personal story, I am learning about Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) and their badging system, with goals for outreach in GSUSA as well.
Web searches with keywords such as “NSF” (or “National Science Foundation”), “Boy Scouts” and “merit badge” show that there are NSF grants with broader impacts plans that include activities with scouting, and merit badge workshops and study groups (e.g., “CAREER: Computational Modeling of Microstructure Evolution during Vapor Deposition“). Additional poking around finds that there are museums around the country that work with scouts as part of the museum’s disciplinary outreach (e.g., Nashville’s Adventure Science Museum). Museums and other institutions can have their own (digital) badging systems, and we are currently designing the desiderata, requirements, and graphic designs of CompSust badges.
We can aspire to create BSA and GSUSA badges on Computational Sustainability, but in the near term, our focus is on workshop materials that scouts and their mentors can use to integrate computing into satisfaction of sustainability-themed badge requirements, and to integrate sustainability into computing-themed badges.
One “secret formula” of BSA, at least in my experience, is that the “library” research involved in merit badges, ecology-themed and otherwise, is side by side with in-the-world activities (including merit badges and Eagle projects) in Backpacking; Cooking; Gardening; Scuba Diving; Search and Rescue; Climbing; Fishing; Citizenship in the Community, Nation, and the World; and so many others — that amalgamates interests in nature, citizenship, science, and humanities — at least it did in me.
Image: Glendora Explorer Post 494 scouts and leaders hiking Mount Whitney (circa 1974). Click to enlarge. Photo Credit: Douglas H. Fisher
Infusing computational sustainability into scouts (and other badging systems and K-12 institutions) appears very promising. There will be other outreach efforts by CompSustNet that are intended as long-lasting and consequential as well — we will be posting these activities to this blog,
Thanks to Professor Paul Work too, for being a pioneer in communicating science to the public. It was serendipity that I discovered him, but serendipity that was made more probable by a curiosity about and appreciation for the place I was in.
Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org.