Teaching Oceanography to Boy Scouts

Every spring for the last decade or so, Florida Tech has hosted “Merit Badge University”. MBU is run by one of our service fraternities, Alpha Phi Omega. APO recruits faculty and students to be the merit badge counselors and organizes the event, which typically attracts over 500 Boy Scouts and offers dozens of badges.

I teach oceanography, meteorology, and earth system science at Florida Tech, and had just competed a course entitled “effective college teaching” when the first MBU was announced. I was armed for MBU! Or so I thought…

Boy Scout merit badges are very structured in that there are set requirements that every Scout must fulfill. There is a merit badge pamphlet for each badge, which typically is a 35 page booklet with all the requirements and all the required information. Naturally I failed to read it before the first time I was the counselor. I just went to the BSA website, downloaded the requirements pages, customized them for MBU, and hit the Xerox machine. Armed and ready for any twelve-year-old!

Two other faculty who are former Boy Scouts agreed to be my co-counselors. We made the PowerPoint, bought the supplies for the Scouts to make a plankton net, and reserved the boat for a mini-cruise. Certainly three full professors of oceanography could wow these little guys. Certainly they all would appreciate a full semester’s undergraduate course in one day. Certainly they would all behave just like fascinated college freshmen, hanging onto each pearl of wisdom we were to impart. Certainly!

There they were. Twenty-odd eager faces ready to earn their Oceanography Merit Badge. Sitting in a college classroom where the tables were all too high, and the seats all too hard. A few Scout leaders sprinkled in, and here and there a mom or dad. On went the projector, the masterfully designed opening slide on the screen, and three graybeards ready to hunt bear!

Eagerness on their faces began to turn to dread as way too much material was presented, way too fast, and at way too high a level. Taking notes and drawing pictures of bottom topography was fun for some, but not for all. Especially for Jason.

Jason sat among the other Scouts, but next to him was Lucile, his mom. Mother and son, side by side; Jason struggling to hold a pencil; Lucile pointing to the place on the page where he should draw. Jason smiling sweetly and Lucile patiently guiding her son. I having the “aha” moment of a lifetime!

After two hours of lecture, it was time for the boys to make plankton nets out of embroidery hoops and lady’s nylon knee-highs. Almost all the Scouts grabbed the drills and stockings and hoops and fishing leaders and wires, and started making plankton nets. Jason joined one of the teams with Lucile close at hand. A power-drill wasn’t something that Jason should be left to use without careful adult supervision.

The rest of the day went pretty well. The boys loved going out on the boat. Loved towing their newly built nets, loved splashing each other and getting wet. Loved going into the university’s biological oceanography lab and seeing their “catch” under microscopes. Loved the days end when each one was presented with his Merit Badge Card. Especially Jason.

Lucile is a saint! My day spent with her and Jason was pure enlightenment. She thanked me for the day and went off to wherever saints in BSA uniforms go with their charges. As I watched them walk away, hand in hand, my merit badge counseling had been transformed. Next year and the years afterward would be different.

Since meeting Jason and Lucile we all are different counselors. I say “we” because now the Oceanography Merit Badge staff includes many more than three crusty old former Boy Scouts. We now have half a dozen college students as part of the team. And every year as Alpha Phi Omega and Florida Tech prepares for MBU, I tell the story of Jason and Lucile.

We now have a team of college kids working with the Scouts in the classroom. We now have a team taking them out on the boat – and keeping them dry (sort of). We now have a team that circulates in the classroom sitting next to Scouts like Jason whose mom isn’t there. We now have a team that is serious about teaching the Oceanography Merit Badge, but who laugh and play with the boys and touch them with joy.

So what has all this to do with IOOS? Look at your audience. Is Jason there? Is Lucile there – or not? Yes they are!

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One Response to Teaching Oceanography to Boy Scouts

  1. Jamie Corbett August 12, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    True observations from your heart- thank you! I am a veteran 6th grade teacher with a high curiosity and I just endured Summer Institute lessons presented by a college professor that included ” way too much material… presented, way too fast, and at way too high a level. Taking notes… was fun for some, but not for all.” Now I know how my kids feel sometimes!

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