The most- and least-popular merit badges of 2012, and what that info tells us

Which merit badges had Scouts rushing to counselors and Moms and Dads rushing to the sewing machine last year?

Here’s your answer. In January 2012, I presented a list of 2011′s most- and least-popular merit badges based on sales numbers from the Supply Division. This year’s numbers come from the BSA Program folks and are based not on sales but on the actual number earned, meaning they should be more accurate.

As you’d expect, the 12 most-earned merit badges from 2012 were all Eagle-required. Those merit badges provide extra motivation for Scouts to finish them on their journey through the ranks. But the badges that ranked 13 to 130 have some interesting takeaways:

Four lessons learned

  • Newcomers Chess, Kayaking, Geocaching, and Robotics were all in the top 50, despite the fact that each is only a few years old.
  • Most, but not all, of the badges in the top 30 are offered at council summer camps, meaning it’s easier for a Scout to earn one even if there isn’t a qualified counselor in his troop.
  • The five rarest merit badges are Journalism, Stamp Collecting, American Labor, American Business, and Bugling. Search and Rescue was in 2012′s bottom five, but it shouldn’t really count because it didn’t debut until August of last year.
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) merit badges are hot, but so are the lower-tech ones like Archery, Climbing, and Wood Carving.

Biggest movers

I also compared Program Group numbers from 2011 with Program Group numbers from 2012 to see which merit badges saw the biggest jump. I eliminated any merit badges introduced in 2011 or 2012, because those numbers are unfairly skewed.

Somewhat surprisingly, Textile and Theater merit badges each saw more than a 25 percent increase from 2011 to 2012.

And these nine also had double-digit gains: Animal Science, Drafting, Pulp and Paper, Astronomy, Insect Study, Cinematography, Inventing, Electronics, and Radio.

On the other end of the spectrum, the five with the biggest drop from 2011 to 2012 were: Coin Collecting, Scouting Heritage, Snow Sports, American Labor, and Skating. Each of those fell by between 14 percent and 31 percent.

The full list

Check out the full list and make your own conclusions. Badges in green are Eagle-required, while those in yellow are new (December 2009 or sooner):


Here you go, stat geeks!

As requested, here is the Excel spreadsheet including the number earned from 2008 to 2012. (Clicking will download the .xlsx file.) Enjoy! And please post any interesting findings in the comments below.

Your takeaways?

I’d love to hear how you interpret this list. Why are the popular ones popular? How can we get more Scouts interested in those that are, let’s say, “more rare”? Share your thoughts below.

137 thoughts on “The most- and least-popular merit badges of 2012, and what that info tells us

  1. Bryan: Any way to get the raw figures for the last several years for MBs earned? I’m a numbers geek & like to look at trends? Thanks.

  2. Great info to utilize and right in time for our Merit Badge Adventure event we’re planning!!

  3. This kind of data can be a good reason to drop some MBs as new ones are created. Surveying and Farm Mechanics, for example, might be considered to be dropped in the future because of low numbers. Others on the bottom end, should never be done away with because of historical reasons. Bugling would be a patch of honor in the Scouting world. :)

    • It is sad though that American Business and Entrepreneurship are not being taught. As a Counselor for those badges, I can say it is time to update the requirements.

    • I think your point has value but I don’t completely agree. I think american schools have abandoned vocational education to the detriment of our whole country. Some of the less popular merit badges help fill the void. Farm Mechanics would be one I would use a good example. Boys need more opportunities to think about how things work.

  4. It’s good to know that boys who do not ultimately earn Eagle learn important skills like First Aid and Swimming – proving that the Scouting program is making an immensely valuable contribution to our society.

    • Hey — have the boys take First Responder class in high school….given how our world has changed, I wish this class was required instead of an elective.

  5. Thank you so much… I love this data and trending info. And since one of my Scouts set the goal to earn them all, we spend lots of time tracking down the hard to find workshops…

    • I also have a 13 yr old Life Scout who wants to earn all the badges. I spend a lot of time on the internet searching for merit badge days and other locations that will hold merit badge classes. We even look for ways to earn badges while on vacation!

      • Renee: I don’t know if my son has taken it so far as to set a goal to earn them ALL, but I do know he plans to earn as many as he can. He is also a Life Scout and will be turning 13 this summer. It would be fun to figure out how to share information about Merit Badge Days or other Merit Badge sources. Any ideas?

        • Depends on where one lives. The World War I Museum in Kansas City does the American Heritage MB. The Harry S. Truman Museum & Library in Independence MO does American Heritage & Citizenship in the Nation. A local train group does the railroading one. The Cosmosphere in Huchinson KS does 4 different MBs including Astronomy. Just have to get out there & look around.

        • There is a site is a website called ‘MeritBadge dot info’ that posts up these kinds of merit badge day events. Drawback is many are open to their council or district. Best way is to google using the merit badge name.

  6. No real surprise in the list. The usual Eagle Required and typical summer camp badges are all at the top of the list. I’m a little surprised that SCUBA isn’t higher on the list. It is a very popular badge in our Troop. The one summer camp we go to offers it and our Scouts take it to go do a SCUBA live aboard at Sea Base.

  7. Before dropping a badge, you need to look at the at demographics, not just the raw numbers. Are the lower sought after merit badges earned in certain regions? I’d also love to see how many counselors there are for each of the badges. Does a ;lack in counselors have something to do with the low interest in them?

    • Agreed. However, I think all Bryan can do is ask the Scout Shop how many were sold. The above numbers don’t reflect actual badges earned although I’d bet they are close statistically.

      Find counselor data is probably nigh-to-impossible across the country. But regional sales might be doable.

      • No, I think he’s pulling this from ScoutNet and the advancement reports,w hich does track merit badges earned. Sales figures could be skewed up or down, based on people buying repeat ones, replacements, anticipated completions that don’t happen, etc… But the awards form gets turned in just like ranks…so its possible to run a report from the advancement system to see even WHERE the awards are earned. So you’d want a table showing award, when, and region or council. You MIGHT even be able, with a little data mining, to see which rank scouts are earning which merit badges. To see which ones get earned at what time or age or point in a scout’s career.
        By date stamping it, you’d also spot trends. Like if you saw 30 Animal Sciences in One month in one council, you might conclude that a troop did a “farm outing” and worked on it in a group. Like our old troop did.

        • Right, Damon. These numbers come from the Program Group and represent the actual number reported by units that their Scouts earned. There are probably some units who are negligent in reporting, but that presumably wouldn’t affect the ranking, only the totals.

      • “Computers” MB is dropping this summer (due to Digital Technology being introduced right after jamboree.

        • Actually, this is one of the questions I have that I haven’t seen an answer to. Are they dropping Computers and rolling out Digital Technology as a new badge with a new number? Or are they renaming the badge, overhauling the require and keeping the old badge number the same (which would mean Scouts could only earn one of the two badges).

  8. Some of the rise in Radio Merit Badge has been due to the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding between BSA and the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). As a result, we now have a BSA National Radio Scouting Committee that promotes Radio Merit Badge, JOTA and K2BSA at the Jamborees. The committee also recruits new Radio Merit Badge Counselors by having exhibits at major Amateur Radio events and provides materials to help counselors teach it. And the ARRL supports the efforts by publicizing them through its publications. See http://www.k2bsa.net/ http://www.arrl.org/amateur-radio-and-scouting and http://k2gw.tripod.com/radiomeritbadge/ for ideas.

    There’s no reason why that cooperative model can’t be followed for other hobby groups, provided their members are willing to pitch in and do it. It’s a Win-Win-Win-Win situation with Scouts advancing, hobbyists teaching kids about their skill, BSA unit adult leaders getting programs that they don’t have run themselves, and Scouting gaining new friends among the general public.

  9. While this data is interesting, it doesn’t tell much about the interest of the Scouts. Most of what the Scouts work on is guided by the interest of the adult leadership. We have a guy interested in trains, so every year, we have that campout at the local train museum. We have a fire fighter, so emergency preparedness is big for our troop. We live in a military populated area, so wilderness survival is big. We have easy access to snow and rivers so canoeing and winter sports is big. We have the ocean less than 30 mintues away, so scuba diving is big for us. The badges are dependent on troop location and adult interests.

      • Truly understand how what the Troop is to do is organized. Getting adults to follow the rules, and really allow the young men to run the Troop would be a dream come true.

        • It is not just a dream, all of the better troops do it. That is one of the reasons for New Youth Leadership Training program. Unfortunately, when some youth complete NYLT and come back, the adult leaders just ignore their attempts to accomplish this dream. The adult leaders need to take updates to their training also. The Scoutmaster’s main job is training junior leaders. Then the junior leaders run the troop. In a well run troop, the adult leadership can sit back and just step up to drive, buy supplies, provide the Scoutmaster’s conference and boards of review, and lock and unlock doors. Of course, each new leader needs training and coaching, but it is amazing to see a well run troop operate. If you haven’t seen this, ask your Commissioner for the name of a troop you can visit to see a properly run troop in action. Actually, the first training I ever got was to watch a properly run troop. What a great inspiration!

        • Empower your youth. Challenge them. Place the burden of leadership on their shoulders. You should be guiding and recommending, not planning and running.

  10. I coordinate the Phoenix District MBU and our numbers are a little different.
    Merit Badge Pop
    1 Citizenship in the Community 1900
    2 Personal Fitness 1130
    3 Personal Management 1090
    4 Cooking 950
    5 Citizenship in the Nation 790
    6 Citizenship in the World 720
    7 First Aid 600
    8 Art 580
    9 Emergency Preparedness 540
    10 Family Life 540
    11 Safety 510
    12 Communications 500
    13 Radio 500
    14 Environmental Science 480
    15 Railroading 470
    16 Forestry 420
    17 Computers 410
    18 Traffic Safety 380
    19 Chess 370 <skewed due to class size artificially limited)
    20 Energy 320
    21 Electronics 280
    22 Salesmanship 270
    23 American Heritage 80

    we are getting a wide range from within SHAC but outside of Phoenix. I am not

  11. Scouting Heritage would probably be more popular except that it requires visiting one of BSA’s high adventure camps or the National Museum. That’s a tough one to meet for many folks.

    • Scott, Requirement 4 has two options. The first includes actually attending a High Adventure Base or national/world jamboree, but the other is simply writing to the National Museum to get information and then presenting that info. That’s no more difficult a requirement than the Citizenship in the Nation requirement to write a congressman or senator.

    • It also states that they can write a letter to the national museum requesting info and fact requirement 4b

    • Scott, the National Museum option reads “write or visit”, so a physical visit is not necessary, just the ability to write a letter requesting information about the musuem.

    • I always thought Scouting Heritage would be of more interest to adults than youth. Offered it at a MB fair recently. Out of 135 Scouts, only one signed up to take the class.

  12. Bryan, thanks for this awesome information. I love to see the raw data and be able to slice and dice the info. It is really cool to see whats popular and what isn’t. Keep up the great work! I love your Blog.

      • Although new ones aren’t that expensive, either. I got one at the local music shop for $70, then like $20 for the mouthpiece. Had it for 2 years and of course some numbskull has already dented it.

        • Take it to your local music repair store. Mine charged me 60 buck for the repair of 3 dents and a nice cleaning for a bugle I got off of an ebay sale from a buyer who attended the 1969 Jamboree with this bugle. I got it for a steal at 25 bucks. Best bugle! It will be traveling with us to the 2013 Jamboree.

  13. It would be interesting to see how the number of registered Scouts earning these Merit badges changed among these same years. It is difficult to tell if there is a closer correlation with changing popularity or with changing population.

  14. Great list, very useful for planning at unit and district level.
    Two comments about specific badges. 1. Surprised that Hiking (67) and Backpacking (91) are so low. Philmont trekkers should find these to fit right into the prep work. 2. Public Health was once an Eagle-required badge, but now # 120. It should not be regarded as an anachronism. Public Health concerns still exist.

    • Agree about Public Health, which I earned as a Scout.

      The reason it was Eagle required was that when BSA was founded, most of the advances in health weren’t due to medicine, but due to the new advances in protecting drinking water supplies, waste sanitation, and food handling.

      These were very important skills for a military officer as units had to do theses things for themselves in the field, and casualties due to disease often exceeded those due to enemy action.

      So, since much of the BSA program had the same requirements (needing to purifying drinking water in the field, digging latrines, cooking, and keeping food without refrigeration) they were naturally incorporated into the BSA program.

      Of course, nowadays, since units usually have porta-potties, bottled water, etc. they may think they don’t need the skills, but they should be retained to “be prepared” to keep Scouts and others safe in an emergency

      It’s important for

    • *= Eagle Required
      **=Must Earn one of the following for Eagle: Swimming, Hiking, or Cycling
      ***= Must earn either Lifesaving or Emergency Prepardness for Eagle
      Green Shaded: Includes all Eagle MBs including the “select one of the following”
      Yellow Shaded: New Merit Badges over the last 4 years that would cause issues if trying to find a mean over the 5 years or other trends

  15. I am a Bugling merit badge counselor. I would like to see this MB rewritten to require only 6 calls to be memorized: “Reveille”, “Assembly”, “Mess”, “Retreat”, “To the Colors”, and “Taps”. For historical purposes, the others could be learned, but there is no point in memorizing them. Those six are the most likely ones boys will come across in their lives. PLUS, I would like to see a requirement added that asks boys to demonstrate the calls to his troop and relate what each means and how to respond when they hear it.

    • I mostly concur with this. I’d add Fatigue to that list, or you could just say learn 2-3 of the other 9. If a boy can learn those six plus one or more, then they can learn the others if they are inclined I think. The reason this badge is falling out of favor, has more to do with a decline in the use of the bugle by troops. Its great to earn at camp (I did), but then I could count on one hand how many times I used the skills.

      • We are running into the falling out of favor catagory in my son’s troop who is way over the top honestly boy lead. The boys will not allow him a position to finish his merit badge. They say they don’t need it and the scoutmaster will not do anything.

        • That’s weird. It’s not a leadership position – and it doesn’t really take anything away from the other boys. Perhaps have your son approach him/her again on the topic and offer to purchase the patch.

        • Charles: Bugler is a Position of Responsibility, and it does go toward advancement http://www.bsahandbook.org/PDFs/troop.pdf
          Peggy, talk to the SM and SPL and show them BSA literature which lists Bugler as a pos’n of responsibility, and if they won’t listen, then go to your Chartered Org Rep, and if he won’t listen go to your District leadership. Troop leadership cannot add or remove from advancement requirements.

    • Maybe some Venture crews started fly fishing & the dual register Scouts earned it that way. When I was out at Philmont PTC last summer it was the same time as some Venturing session was going on. Saw the Venturing Scouts practicing their fly fishing casting skills on the lawn in front of the Hacienda.

    • Merit Badge Days events and summer camp might have a huge impact when folks switched from doing the ol’ fishing to newer fly fishing to teach yet another new skill.

    • The merit badge requirements were revised in 2010. I don’t have the old requirements, but I suspect there is a link.

  16. No big surprise on the drop in Scouting Heritage as we move away from the Centennial. I plan to offer it soon after having read Scott & Murphy’s “The Scouting Party.”

  17. From Bryan’s spreadsheet, here’s some interesting stuff.
    Scuba Diving has grown 1,995% since 2009 when it was introduced. (130 to 2,594)
    Fly fishing has the biggest percentage jump from 2008 at 878% (489 to 4291).
    Here are the top 2 to 6 highest percentage increases for those badges with data going back to 2008: Insect Study (267%), Plant Science (225%), Pulp and Paper (181%), Astronomy (179%) and Engineering (162%)
    The lowest percentage MBs are Skating (71%), Golf (72%), Basketry (81%), Snow Sports (83%) and Rowing (86%). With a below 100%, it means they all declined in numbers.
    Pioneering and Athletics were the closest to unchanging numbers since 2008.
    Only one Eagle Requirement dropped below 100%: Lifesaving. After that, it was Camping at 104%. The highest was Citizenship in the Community with 115% (a virtually tie with Dentistry and Space Exploration.)

  18. I know out here we support the theory of others…counselor availability strongly influences which badges are earned…

  19. I found the Fly Fishing numbers interesting, There was a huge jump from 475 earned in 2010 up to 4605 earned in 2011. They made one change in the requirements that year dropping the # of species of fish you need to catch from 2 down to 1. Hard to believe that would account for that big of an increase in #’s earned though. And it made me check my records – because in 2010 I was the Fly Fishing MB instructor at the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch in Colorado and had 104 boys earn Fly Fishing MB. That was about 22% of the total # earned that year. Thanks for the great info. Keep it coming.

  20. 2010 data does not include the centenial badges. I’m curious what those numbers looked like.

    • Not only that, but I wish they’d consider bringing them back. Particularly tracking and carpentry (I think it was those two).

      • I agree Tracking would be an interesting add and they are bringing back Signaling. Carpentry though was basically Woodworking M.B. without power tools – interesting from a historical perspective, but it doesn’t really add anything to the program.

  21. Biggest jump for next year of couse (excluding new merit badges) will be Cooking.

    Will be interesting to see if Environmental Science declines slightly as you’d expect a few Scouts to substitute Sustainability. Someone with more time than me should group these by traditional Summer Camp area (ScoutCraft, etc.) and see what the percentages are – maybe both including and excluding merit badges traditionally NOT taught at Summer Camp (“all other category”).

    • Game Design should also prove to be tremendously popular. Cooking may jump this year as Scouts rush to finish it before the new requirements come out.

  22. Bryan -
    You asked for feedback regarding the bottom of the list…

    Here’s my take. Many of those at the bottom are related to professions. To encourage participation, Councils should perhaps look to community businessmen/leaders to find dynamic Counselors. Of the bottom 12, 9 fit into this category (and MB’s like Farm Mechanics isn’t far off).

    I would also heartily recommend that the MB for Journalism be examined for a rewrite. Given that this is the age of the blogger in Journalism, where everyone has a voice – it seems past time to pull this one off the shelf and give it an update.

    Others many benefit from that as well.

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