Merit badges: How they’re dreamed up and what’s coming next

scoutcast-logo1The last five years have been exciting ones for anyone into merit badges (aka every Boy Scout out there).

As I learned in the November 2014 ScoutCast, the BSA increased the total number of available merit badges to 135 from 121 over the past half-decade.

That means 14 new merit badges since 2009: Scuba Diving, Scouting Heritage, Inventing, Geocaching, Chess, Robotics, Welding, Kayaking, Search and Rescue, Game Design, Programming, Sustainability, Mining in Society, and Digital Technology.

But how are new merit badges like those dreamed up? Which merit badges are next? And what’s the future of merit badges and merit badge pamphlets?

That’s where things get really interesting. Merit Badge Maintenance Task Force member Steve Bowen reveals facts about merit badges you probably didn’t know in the November 2014 ScoutCast.

The hosts were able to extract some juicy details about merit badges from Steve.

Read on for my key takeaways:

1. 2009 represented a critical shift for merit badges

Before 2009, Bowen and the Merit Badge Maintenance Task Force were concerned with updating and modernizing existing merit badges. That task had their full focus.

After 2009, though, the task force was able to concentrate on developing new merit badges. That explains the onslaught of the past five years.

2. Merit badge ideas come from exactly where you’d hope

Sure, parents, adult Scouters, professional staff and the general public suggest merit badges. But most of the submissions come directly from the boys. As one would hope.

3. New merit badges are due out next year

Bowen reveals info about merit badges expected next year: Signs, Signals, and Codes and Animation. More details on both of these as I get them.

4. Merit badges aren’t going anywhere

Not that anyone was concerned, but it’s good to hear a Merit Badge Maintenance Task Force member reiterate the fact that merit badges are here to stay. But that doesn’t mean merit badges aren’t changing.

The task force will continue to keep the existing library up to date, including by adding digital merit badge pamphlets, Bowen says. “We’re going to try and stay in front of the curve if we can.” So far so good.

5. Newcomers Chess and Kayaking were in the top 20 percent last year

Have you seen my 2013 merit badge rankings? I ranked every merit badge in order of popularity (number earned).

But Bowen pointed out something I found interesting: Chess and Kayaking, both introduced in the past three years, were among the most-earned in 2013.

Bowen points out that Chess and Kayaking have little in common. Just like our Scouts.

“It just shows you that our Scouts have a wide range of interests and abilities, and we should never assume that a given merit badge wouldn’t excite a boy,” he says. “Unit leaders have a great opportunity here to open up all kinds of new worlds to their Scouts through the merit badge experience and program enhancement.”

Listen to the November 2014 ScoutCast

Go here to listen to this month’s ScoutCast.

Read the November 2014 ScoutCast (transcript)

Go here for this and other ScoutCast transcripts.

31 Comments

    • When my so first started scouts he said he wanted to get the sewing merit badge but was disappointed that it didn’t exist.

    • Not every skill needs to be a MB. In my Troop the boys choose Sewing as one of their weekly instruction topics about once per every 12 – 18 months. The Youth Instructors and instruction program can be used to teach anything that is scout appropriate.

    • Agreed. Now that it has been on the books for about four years now we need to figure out a way to get boys more interested in earning the badge. From the data Bryan has posted in the past it appears the badge is hanging out in the upper 80’s in terms of popularity among all merit badges.

    • I think the scouting heritage MB is an adult thing – especially for collectors. I suspect that’s why it is not very popular with the boys. We haven’t had anyone in our troop earn it, though they have had the opportunity, and we have boys who are working on Farm Mechanics. (we live in the suburbs) Go figure.

  1. THANK YOU for including the transcript Bryan!!
    Doing a merit badge day event, I am always inspired by these articles. Included a section in our scout gift on scouts inventing merit badges and directed them to those pages at Scouting.org.

  2. I wish the aquatic-oriented merit badges like canoeing and kayaking required that the scouts actually plan and go on some trips like the hiking, backpacking cycling, and camping merit badges. Just like hiking requires five hikes – the canoeing and kayaking merit badges should require that you paddle a progression of miles. Otherwise we have summer camps who short circuit the requirements and give away the merit badge. I have seen scouts “earn” canoeing who can neither steer a canoe nor even properly hold the paddle at the end of the week of summer camp. It’s a shame.

  3. Hammock camping with a low/no impact emphasis. Hammockforums.net already has one that is extremely well thought out, and significantly tested, and proven successful.

  4. There could be a canoe/kayak tripping merit badge which covers portaging, packing, navigation, and, of course, putting the paddling skills to work. It could have canoeing or kayaking as a prerequisite.

      • Digital Technology replaced Computers? So, where does Advanced Computing fit in? I work at a Scout Shop, and we were told Adv Comp was replacing Computers? In our merit badge & merit badge book displays, we’ve been holding a slot open for Adv Comp, expecting it to arrive soon?

  5. Unfortunatly Dave just because you go on a canoeing trip does not mean you will be able to steer a canoe (master the J stroke), or properly hold a paddle (all things you should have to master to pass the merit badge right now). It all boils down to good instruction and perhaps observant, caring Scout leaders that wave the red flag when things are not being done right.

    • The problem with summer camp merit badges is that the instruction by 14 or 15 year old staff members is often poor. The total time in the scouts spend in the water for a merit badge class is miniscule. Maybe only a couple of hours. If the paddling related merit badges could not be completed at camp because they actually required a scout to paddle some distance, then there is an opportunity to give the scouts some thoughtful instruction, gain some experience, and master some skills.

      Imagine if you modified the hiking MB so it could be finished at a week of camp. You would meet on day 1 and talk about first aid and safety. You would meet on day 2 for an hour and talk about planning, maps, compass and navigation. On day 3 you would go out and “hike” for 30 minutes! And on day 4, you would take a test to make sure you could put one foot in front of the other. Friday would be an opportunity for people to make up any requirements they missed on the earlier days. Congrats! Here’s the “hiking” MB! That’s what the canoeing and kayaking MB’s are like.

      • It depends on the source of the Merit Badge. In Coronado Council, there is an annual “Kansas SeaBase” held at a large lake. The staff is all adults & is limited to 60 Scouts. 10 each for each of the aquatic Merit Badges: Kayaking, Canoeing, Rowing, Small-Boat Sailing, Water Sports, & Motor Boating.

        I haven’t been, but have received the manual for the event as I may take my son in the future. The event starts on a Friday night & goes through Sunday noon. A swim check takes place on Friday night & the Merit Badge work continues through all-day Saturday. Sunday morning is a make-up if a Scout needs additional time to meet the requirements.

        While making the aquatic MBs more like the hiking or cycling MBs may sound like good, but what are the 2nd & 3rd order consequences? What about Scouts that cannot afford that trip for 5 days to canoe down a river, yet alone go to Northern Tier? That same Scout may receive a campership to attend summer camp where they can meet the Canoeing MB requirements. But that same Scout could not do it if there was a requirement for an extensive canoe trip. Thus, the MB would only be awarded to those that could afford to go on the week-long canoe trip. Even then, how could the completion of that trip “prove” that that Scout was any more qualified than someone who had not gone. There could have been a larger, stronger Scout (or even a Scouter) in the canoe that was the main propulsion or steering for the canoe.

        We may be opening a can of worms that we do not want so that certain MBs are only for the rich instead of for all Scouts.

  6. I once suggested a couple of merit badges. I got a letter back from National telling me there were no plans to introduce merit badges on those topics. Over 30 years later, one of them is a merit badge. It may take time, but it could happen.

  7. I’d love to see a knotting or decorative knotting merit badge. There are so many knots beyond those required in the Scout Handbook, and there is plenty of history surrounding knotting that Scouts could explore. It would surely be popular, if done right. Just look at all the paracord bracelets at scout camps.

    • In some troops, the Scouts do wear name badges. In our troop, when Scouts complete their “in troop” leadership training, they receive a leather tab with a clear plastic where the Scout slides in their name typed on a piece of paper. The tab hangs from their right pocket button with their name on it. Most of the Scouts forget to take the leather tab off when the uniform goes thru the wash so the paper gets wet & damaged. Most do not put in a new name while others just forget to put it back on their uniform when it came off to go in the wash.

      But what is the purpose of the name tag? To identify the Scout for the unit leaders? Shouldn’t the SM & ASMs know the names of the Scouts in their unit? For the Committee Members who probably see the Scouts even less? Is it to identify the Scout to those outside the Troop? For what purpose? Unless we can come up with the reason for the action, it probably should not be done because activity does not equal progress.

  8. I’d like to see Hiking MB adapted for mountain hiking. Perhaps allow a scout to remove 1 mile from the distance requirement for every 800 or 1000 feet in elevation gain (difference between the trail’s highest and lowest altitude) or something, as long as the hike remains a minimum length.

    I live in a city surrounded by mountains. There are some wonderful 12-13 mile hikes that take healthy adults 10-13 hours to complete because of a few thousand feet of elevation gain. These hikes are as strenuous as they come, but they don’t count as a capstone hike for the merit badge.

    Around here, the only way to do a 20 miler (as required) is to walk on city sidewalks rather than through nature. Kind of defeats the purpose of “hiking” if you’re in the city while doing it.

  9. You know they have all kinds of hobbies and occupational fields, which is great! What they really should come up with is a Military Merit badge that covers the differant brances and some of the history that the Military has. It should also cover ranks, Officer and enlisted and differant Occupations that is in each branch of the military.

  10. How do we suggest a new merit badge? After being the annual pancake supper chair for our troop now for three years, and having a degree in Hospitality Management, I would LOVE to see one for that! How many of our scouts, as teens, will have their first job in a restaurant, hotel, golf course, library, etc???

  11. What about ones like skydiving, motorsports (4-wheeling and dirtbike) gourmet cooking, world travel, surfing, hoverboarding, mathematics, physics
    There should also be a snowmobiling option for snow sports MB

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