Scouts BSA Merit Badge Classes Go Virtual

Youth have chance to interact with politicians, experts in various fields in pursuit of merit badge goals; online program developed by Barbara Oxford of Kalispell

By Micah Drew
A screenshot from the Scouts BSA Zoom call with Sen. Jon Tester. Photo courtesy of Scouts BSA Montana Council

There are more than 135 merit badges, spread across sports, crafts, sciences, trades and future careers that youth can earn throughout careers as members of Scouts BSA.

Normally, scouts have the chance to attend summer camps and Merit Badge University sessions, which are short day camps hosted by various colleges around the state that offer multiple merit badge classes.

In 2020, many such opportunities were canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving an educational hole for scouts. To adapt, the Scouts BSA Montana Council followed in the vein of many businesses and schools and shifted to an online format.

“I have two scouts of my own that have goals they want to accomplish, and without summer camps or other programs happening, there was a need to fill,” Northwest District Committee Vice Chair Barbara Oxford said. “I just decided that this needed to happen.”

As soon as statewide lockdowns hit, Oxford began researching how councils in other states were adapting and found a virtual merit badge course in Florida that gave her an outline.

“When I first approached the idea in Montana, there wasn’t much traction because people thought the lockdowns were going to pass quickly,” Oxford said.

During the Scouts’ major September fundraiser, the Trails End Popcorn sale, Oxford thought the associated salesmanship merit badge offered a natural way to test run a virtual seminar. Once that went well, she received full permission from the district committee to pursue online classes.

Oxford made a list of all the badges she thought she could bring into the virtual world — she estimates she can pull off at least 30 — and set to work.

In November, the first fully virtual merit badge class launched, with 43 Montana scouts taking part to earn their animation badge.

“I had to figure out how to easily teach the 12 principles of animation, how to cover the history and show scouts how to create animations,” Oxford said. “When they completed their projects, it was a cool way to show them off. It was just a blast.”

In December, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester joined a group of more than 50 scouts for their Citizenship in the Nation class, calling in from his Washington D.C. home.

“It’s hard to make it interesting when people are burnt out on Zoom,” Oxford said, noting that Tester’s presence spiked enough interest that she added more spots after it maxed out. “Pulling in speakers people wouldn’t have access to normally is the real key and makes it memorable.”

While Oxford is with the northwest district, classes are open to scouts statewide, and “every once in a while, we have people sneak in from other states.” For the upcoming January classes on genealogy, scouts are registered from 14 different cities in Montana.

The class guest for genealogy is Nick Sheedy, a Bigfork native who is the lead genealogist for the PBS series Finding Your Roots.

“For a kid that age, and really anybody, learning more about your family history puts a personal face on history,” Sheedy said. “You can learn about World War II or the Civil War, but to know you had an ancestor who served and making a personal connection to that history, that sparks an interest and makes history more meaningful.”

Sheedy has given similar talks to scouting groups in person before, and emphasized that learning more about personal history — at any age — can shape one’s understanding of the world.

“Whether you realize people in your family did amazing things or that they’re regular people who were just incredible humans for their families, you understand that a lot of people endured to get you where you are,” he continued. “You realize you stand on the shoulder of lots of people, and I think that motivates people to do something with their lives.”

Oxford has plans for hosting courses for the Scouting Heritage and Chemistry merit badges already in the works and is exploring adding a STEM Nova Awards class — a class that explores science, technology, engineering and mathematics — for Cub Scouts.
“I think this format will continue, at least with the merit badges that adapt so well.” Oxford said. “We’re not going to be doing horsemanship anytime soon.”

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