Five groups who benefit from the BSA’s superb STEM programs

Some young people react to time spent outdoors with delight. Others with dread.

The outdoors-averse are just one of the groups that can benefit from the BSA’s programming in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The Boy Scouts of America offers life-changing experiences for every young person. And they can get those experiences wherever they want — in a state park, in a classroom, on a sailboat or — more and more these days — in a laboratory.

STEM comes in two flavors. There’s STEM in traditional Scouting, which includes the Nova awards program, STEM-based adventures in Cub Scouts and STEM-related merit badges in Boy Scouts. And then there’s STEM Scouts, a hands-on, all-STEM program currently serving 14 cities. (I went over the differences between STEM in Scouting and STEM Scouts in this post.)

Any young person who experiences STEM in Scouting or STEM Scouts will benefit. But Dr. Richard Stone, a Greater Alabama Council volunteer on the BSA’s STEM/Nova committee, sees five specific groups who seem to fit especially well.

1. Youth not interested in the outdoors

“Some youth are just not interested in the outdoors,” Stone explains. “Do they not deserve the benefits of a full Scouting experience?”

Most of us would argue they do. STEM Scouts, with labs for elementary through high school students, offers a way to deliver the values of Scouting in a unique setting.

2. Young people with disAbilities

First off: What’s up with that spelling? Dr. Stone and his colleagues use that unusual capitalization to emphasize a young person’s abilities, not his or her disabilities.

For example, Dr. Stone tells of a young boy named Michael who has Down syndrome. The boy’s mother told Dr. Stone how STEM activities have changed this Scout’s life.

“This program was a great way for Michael to interact with his fellow Cub Scouts,” the mother wrote. “Michael learns best in a hands-on environment, and the STEM program provided that for him. As a parent of a son with special needs, I would like to applaud the Boy Scouts of America for encouraging all kids of all abilities to participate in the STEM program. It was a great experience for Michael.”

And then there’s Todd, a Scout with high-functioning autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Todd’s dad observed how STEM programs within Scouting have helped Todd improve his social skills, develop friendships and have a greater view of the world.

3. Webelos and Arrow of Light Cub Scouts

Sometimes these oldest Cub Scouts (and their leaders) are looking for something new to try as they anxiously await the transition to Boy Scouting.

STEM offers just the thing. They can start with the Dr. Charles H. Townes Supernova Award, which takes Webelos Scouts on a journey through science, technology, engineering and math.

4. Scouts looking for a leg up in the workforce

STEM offers career opportunities galore, and by starting early in STEM Scouts or STEM in traditional Scouting, young people are getting a head start.

“The public, schools and future employers see STEM as preparing youth for their future,” Stone says. Promoting STEM programs within the community will make it “easier to convince the public that Scouting is relevant and useful.”

5. Young women

STEM Scouts adds to the BSA’s range of programming another co-ed opportunity. That means girls as young as third grade can join a lab, become Scouts and enjoy Scouting’s values.

These young women can continue in STEM Scouts until they graduate high school — or, if so inclined, move to Venturing or Sea Scouts once they’re older.

What do you think?

Who else benefits when we focus on STEM? Sound off in the comments.


  1. Still not a fan of this program nor do I see a need for it. I continue to believe BSA should focus its limited resources on its existing programs instead of trying to roll out another program. Kids already have access to all kinds of STEM activities, from the science courses they take in school to the youth programs that nearly every museum offers nowadays, to extracurricular programs (FLL, DI, etc.). None of these programs offer exposure to the outdoors, service, or citizenship that BSA offers, which is to our advantage. Focus on our strengths.

    • The STEM activities, while maybe not offering “exposure” to the outdoors, does offer an understanding of the outdoors and what nature has to offer (among other things). Through the STEM activities young people may discover a particular love and, when coupled with their Scouting experience, may develop a device or practice that facilitates saving the environment, provides a greater Scouting experience or even bigger and better contributions. Those contributions could be of great service to someone somewhere and what greater citizenship is there than when we first seek to serve others? Remember, our youth are filled with amazing ideas and dreams; STEM could be what takes those ideas and dreams from foolish to fantastic!

    • Many of us see the STEM program within the Boy Scouts as offering the same experiences (not the camping and cooking, but the team building, leadership, goal setting, achievement, service and ethics experiences) as the outdoor program. The BSA’s STEM program differs from what all those others offer by BEING and DOING what Scouting does best.

    • Baden Powell must be rolling over in his grave. There’s nothing ‘scouting’ about be indoors. Seton’s Woodcraft Indians and Beard’s Sons of Daniel Boone and Powell’s Scouting for Boys was all about out-of-doors adventure.

      Consequently, the 2014 Voice of the Scout Survey Results clearly spoke to this. Scouting is more effective when you get scouts outside. I’d be more in favor of boosting enrollment by allowing girls to be scouts, kindergarten through age 18, than I’m in favor of STEMScouts.

  2. Honestly, I have mixed feelings.
    – Love science (Nova awards are awesome), love the outdoors too, so promoting one in isolation from the other for the sake of attracting particular group of youth wouldn’t suit me. The situational ethics that come from being in a distinct environment with 8 peers for continuous days … learning to take care of your people, renders Oath and Law immediately practical.

    On the other hand
    – I know a young man like Todd who loved scouting except enduring the overnights (esp. the bugs) was an extreme trial for him, so he left the troop after giving it a hearty go for nearly a year. If there were a lab to join, he might have done so and still found congruence between the principles of the Oath and Law and the activities he could enjoy.

    As for the young ladies? Time will tell if this is a pathway to Venturing or Sea Scouts. It would be nice to see the membership stats for councils that have been running STEM last year. If their enrollment of venturers has bucked national trends, that would be a pretty strong sell.

    • I don’t think anyone is promoting one or the other program in isolation. It’s really a continuum of opportunities:
      1. All outdoors for those not interested in STEM (a very small group I would guess)
      2. STEM as part of the outdoor experience. How do sails work to propel the sailboat? What do fish like so I can use the most effective bait? (many people in this group, but probably don’t know it)
      3. STEM as a part of the Scouting experience. STEM merit badges. STEM events at camps. Nova and Supernova awards. (Most Scouts are in this group.)
      4. All STEM for those who find the outdoor program difficult or not enticing. (There are more people here than we think, because we really haven’t asked them to join yet. That’s what we’re trying to discuss in this blog post.)

      It’s our job as leaders to address all of these options.

  3. Cooking, using a compass, paddling a canoe, looking up at the stars, checking the weather, rappelling down a cliff face, even lighting a campfire . . . STEM is everywhere, but especially in how Scouts interact with nature and conduct outdoor adventures. I suppose you can carry on the traditional Scouting outdoor program and just ignore the science, technology, engineering, and math behind what you’re doing; but why not make those experiences even richer and deeper?

  4. We had this term in the military — mission creep. I rue the day when a young man can earn his Eagle having never slept a night in a tent.

    • Sea Scouts was mission creep. The Order of the Arrow was mission creep. Cub Scouts was mission creep. Career Exploring was mission creep. Venturing was mission creep. Learning for Life was mission creep. Where is the line? Is Exxon Mobil a petroleum company or an energy company? Is the Boy Scouts of America an outdoorsmanship program or a youth development program?

      My concerns are: Are we doing everything we can to reverse the membership decline in the programs we already have? With STEM Scouts, are we saying that we can’t fix the membership decline and we need to branch out into other markets with new programs? Are we taking resources away from our traditional programs in order to branch out?

      • I don’t see how the Honor Society of Scouts is “Mission Creep” – the core of OA is service and camping…… Maybe a fact check is in order?

        • Yep, mission creep (and that is from someone with the Vigil Honor). OA has its own independent awards system, hierarchy, uniform items, activities, ceremonies — even its own oath (Obligation). It also has a relatively narrow and focused mission that is drawn from certain specific elements of Boy Scouting and expands on them beyond what is called for in the Boy Scouting program. Great stuff, but totally unnecessary for conducting the Boy Scouting program. Mission creep.

    • Interesting, but the best I can tell there are no “ranks” in STEM Scouts (I may be wrong). STEM Scouts and the STEM activities through NOVA within Scouts are just supplemental to the greater Scouting program. However, sticking with your assertion, there are other things that are just as egregious. What about a young man that “earns” his Eagle without ever holding a position of leadership (much less actively engaging in that role)? What about the young man that “earns” his Eagle but hasn’t set foot in the Troop for 18 months or more and suddenly shows up to announce his project? What about the young man that “earns” his Eagle by completing an Eagle “project” (last minute or otherwise) where no one else was there to help? What about any Scout or Scouter that has done nothing to demonstrate their duty to God? I agree that a Scout, especially those truly earning Eagle, should be “active” and camp (outdoors) and do all those things that Scouting was designed to encourage and foster in a boy. Why not supplement that with STEM activities, in whatever form it takes, and foster a more well-rounded Scout?

    • You mean the 1970s “Improved Scouting Program?” Check out the various rank requirements from 1972 to 1979 if you want to verify that an Eagle in that time frame didn’t have to do a single night of camping. That program was a failure, and William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt had to come out of retirement to save the BSA.

      You think the BSA would have learned from that mistake.

  5. As one who ardently identifies with the traditionalist movement in Scouting, I still am a proponent of the STEM program.

    “Scouting features a wide array of challenges, activities, and avenues of discovery. In such a multi-faceted program there are opportunities to learn about subjects as diverse as Rocketry, Wilderness Survival, Robotics, and Pioneering. Scouting is both the new and the old, the modern and the traditional, the innovative and the timeless!”

  6. We’ve always been taught that “It’s not scouting without ‘outing'” Apparently folks at National never got trained.

    My son hates “classroom”scouting”. He wonders aloud why he can’t just go hiking to earn the Hiking MB, or just go camping to earn the Camping MB and so on. The whole approach to STEM is just more classroom work and isn’t scouting.

    • In one of my earliest adult training experiences, we were taught that “You don’t TEACH camping merit badge. You just go camping. The merit badge will get earned along the way.” I agree that hiking and camping **and STEM** are not done in the classroom but in the field. It’s our job as leaders to do it right.

  7. I appreciate the mention of Scouts with disabilities. (Tim Shriver, Special Olympics Chairman, prefers the term “Diffabilities”. (;

    I agree that traditional, outdoor Scouting events and STEM events are mutually compatible. My son – a 2015 Eagle, OA Brotherhood Brother, veteran of many camping nights, and scout with a disability – relished the activities and events that showcased his abilities, whether completing the 50 mile bike ride (for the Cycling Merit Badge) or creating a PowerPoint for his Eagle Project supplemental documentation.

  8. I have two grandson’s one is a cub scout the other is a boy scout that have been in the STEM program. Both of them have earned the Supernova and my grandson is working on his second Supernova. A+ in my book

  9. The BSA cannot compete with the STEM programs already being provided through most high schools (e.g. Robotics club). BSA’s foundation is providing a program to get young men out of doors. Focus on building/ensuring local troops can fullfill this promise. I will not donate/support my personal time/treasures to BSA council or national for more diversions from the founding principle….

  10. Well, I think the above voting shows how many Scouters feel about this STEM idea — They ain’t for it. Here we just overhauled the Cub program to get rid of a lot of the classroom-type, purely academia requirements and make it more like the original Scouting program. We’ve been told for years now to “Put the Outing back in Scouting.” Then, because it’s the latest hot trend, we’re told BSA is rolling out STEM programs. Ugh.

    I agree with the few mentions there is some “STEM” in learning to use a compass, and the mechanics of building a fire, and you’ll be using STEM to get through the Engineering MB, but that’s always been the case. It was true 100 years ago when the first boys earned their Architecture or Chemistry Merit Badges. We never had to point out and make a big deal that we were using Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math. We were just Scouting.

  11. And I have to take issue with the quote: “Some youth are just not interested in the outdoors,” Stone explains. “Do they not deserve the benefits of a full Scouting experience?” Well, that’s kinda like saying you don’t like airplanes and you don’t like heights, but you still want the benefits of flying in a 747 anyways. If “Scouting is Outing” and you don’t like “outing”, then Scouts probably isn’t for you. We cannot be all things to all people. Life doesn’t work that way.* It sounds to me like this STEM stuff would roll into the Explorers program, but I’m not that up on the Explorers. Try marketing it there. The Cubs and Boy Scouters have our hands full trying to get a video-game captivated generation to look up from their consoles and back outside. (Yeah, I know STEM isn’t all “indoors”, but that’s the knee-jerk perception.)

  12. … continued (Guess I’m being a little wordy today.)
    So, National, the left hand says “Scouting is Outing”, the right hand says those not interested in the outdoors still deserve the full Scouting experience. Those two sentences are incongruent. When you all get yourselves sorted out, let us know. In the meantime, those of us “in the trenches” are going to keep on learning/teaching: how to build fires without matches, why certain lashings are better than others in different situations, how to make our derby cars faster, which hook shape is better for which fish, why pressure points work in stemming bloodflow, how to design bridges, what makes our Space Derby rockets go, why it’s important to know what your sleeping bag’s temperature rating is, …

  13. I remain concerned that the cause or causes of the membership decline in our traditional programs has not been identified (or if identified, it has not been clearly communicated to us), and that BSA has no clear and direct plan for countering that membership decline.

    If you look at the membership growth plan announced in October by Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh (go to Scoutingwire dot org, Chief’s Corner, “This is How We Will Grow Scouting”), it has four points. Two of those points are: one, growing the career-oriented Exploring program, and two, growing STEM Scouts. Those are both programs outside traditional Cub Scouting, Boy Scouting, Varsity Scouting, Venturing, and Sea Scouting.

    The other two points of the growth plan concern the traditional programs, but are rather vague: one, “innovate . . . a more effective entry point for introducing families into Scouting,” and two, “strengthen our marketing efforts by . . . targeting more precisely the underserved markets we want to reach.” I think you could reduce those two points to just one — “do a better job recruiting” — which is both obvious and not helpful.

    Interestingly, the elements of the growth plan completely ignore something that my experience suggests is true about our traditional programs: recruiting is largely done on a unit-by-unit basis, and units with trained leaders who follow the recommended program and have a strong outdoor component grow, while units that are missing one or more of those components shrink.

    So while personally I think it is great that BSA wants to grow Exploring and STEM Scouts, I wish BSA’s growth plan for traditional units looked something like this: (1) improve leader training and the percentage of leaders who are trained; (2) raise the standards and expectations for how units run their Scouting/Venturing programs (Journey to Excellence Bronze should be the minimum to stay off the “troubled unit” list); (3) improve every unit’s outdoor program; and (4) identify weak units and either quickly build them up or quickly shut them down.

    • I’ve mentioned how the 1970s’ “Improved Scouting Program” that took the OUTING out of Scouting, allowed folks to earn Eagle without a single night of camping. I think that mistake is now coming back to haunt us with professionals and unit leaders who grew up under that program. Since the outdoors was de-emphasized, the units they belonged too didn’t do the monthly hiking and camping. They didn’t do high adventure activities like Philmont, Northern Tier, Maine HA Base, or Land Between the Lakes HA base. So they have little to no experience in the outdoors. And that affects programming.

      We have a troop locally that has a SM who is an Eagle from that period. But he doesn’t like to camp, and doesn’t remember camping as much as other troops do today. That troop has major issues with camping, constantly cancelling camp outs at the last minute due to lack of Scouts or leaders. Troop is not only losing Scouts, but has only kept 1 out 12 new Scouts form their feeder pack in the past 3 years. They either join a different troop altogether, join then transfer to a different troop within a year, or drop out all together. I blame the ISP program because the SM grew up under it, and doesn’t understand the importance of camping, despite being trained. He keeps saying “Scouting needs to change with the times,” and does his own thing. Yet he is losing scouts.

      As for professionals who grew up during this period, many do not understand the importance of program. They focus on membership, infrastructure, advancement, etc. They do not understand that if you really want to keep Scouts, you need an active and challenging program. I’ve been to, and worked at camps that had lousy camp infrastructure. But because of the programing, because of the staff, they were absolute fantastic camp experiences. I’ve also worked at a camp where the infrastructure was brand new, with a million plus dollars spent on infrastructure. But the Professional running the camp could not fathom how important programing and staff moral was to the success of the camp.

      The outdoor program is the FOUNDATION of Scouting. As William Hillcourt stated

      “OUTING is three-fourths of Scouting.”

      • Sadly, professionals are pressured to get new units started; but the quality of a new unit’s program is a matter for the future, not the present. And professionals are pressured to increase membership; but the only way they know to do that is through new applications, because increased membership through better retention is something they have no control over. Monitoring and promoting unit quality (which is what brings in and keeps members) is left to the Commissioners; but there are never enough Commissioners, and the only real tool they have is persuasion. Plus, the districts (and the District Key 3) are incentivized to keep poorly-performing units on the rolls, because it helps their district statistics for JTE purposes, which helps their council statistics.

        The bottom line is that long-term membership growth (via units with high-quality programs) is being impeded by short-term membership incentives.

        • As a former pro I know that all to well. But I’ve found that if a district or council has an active, well thought out program to support the units, especially Cub Scouts, even if a unit has poor program, you will retain some Scouts.

          But DEs can recruit program oriented folks to run activities on the district level. DEs, when assigned council level responsibilities can use their experiences to get creative and active programs that the Scouts want.

    • I firmly believe that STEM is interesting and fun. Ok, maybe that’s just my view.

      However, if you look at the real goals of Scouting, achieving the three AIMS of Scouting (Character, Citizenship, Fitness, and all of the sub-bullets of each), then what we need are more ways to get youth into Scouts. I see the outdoor program (a METHOD of Scouting) as one on-ramp into the Scouting program. I see STEM as another on-ramp into Scouting. Why not offer multiple paths to the goal?

      • The challenge is this though: are we diluting the program to try an be everything to everyone?

        While the outdoor program is a Method of Scouting, it is at it’s heart the foundation of the movement. As William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt so eloquently put it, “OUTING is three-fourths of ScOUTING.” yes the last edition of the BSHB misquotes him.

        Look what happened from 1972 – 1979 with the Improved Scouting Program that took the outing out of Scouting. Membership fell so dramatically that high level professionals pushing the ISP retired early, and William Hillcourt had to come out of retirement to write a new BSHB as well as a training program that re-emphasized the outdoors and outdoor skills.

        And the ISP had unexpected consequences, even to this day. Local council professionals, in attempts to keep their job, inflated membership numbers. That came hit the movement hard in the 1990s and early 2000s when it finally came to light. In my area, we still have donors looking at membership numbers with a jaundiced and critical eye.

        We also have a “experienced” Scout leaders who grew up in the 1970s with little to no camping experience, yet are Eagles (remember, you didn’t have to earn Camping Skill Award or Camping Merit Badge to get Eagle Scout from 1972 – 1979). The troops they lead are lucky to get 4 monthly camp outs and summer camp, because they do not understand the importance of the outdoor program, despite being Eagles and undergoing training. One such leader’s comment is that “Scouting needs to change with the times.”

        But when you do school round ups, what gets everyone’s attention, the meetings or the outdoor activities? What gets everyone’s attention, doing skits and crafts or fishing, taking hikes, shooting BB guns?

        If the outdoor program is just a Method of Scouting, then why have changes to the Cub Scout program over the past 20 years, and especially with the new program that came out in June of 2015, placed a major emphasis on the outdoors, and less on the classroom meeting setting? If the outdoor program is just a method of Scouting, then why are there waiting lists to do the High Adventure bases, and national had to open a fourth HA base, The Summit?

        Green Bar Bill said is best, “Scouting IS OUTING!”

        • Forgot to add, the leader who stated, “Scouting has to change with the times” is hemorrhaging Scouts. Scout who were there with the prior SM have either transferred to other units, or left the movement completely. As for the 16 Webelos who could have joined his troop from the feeder pack in the past two years or were recruited for them, 4 went to different troops; 2 joined the troop, and then transferred to a different troop; and 9 have left Scouting completely. One 1 remains with the troop, and that is due to family ties; brother is a Life Scout and dad is an ASM.

          Reasons for 14 of the 15 that are not affiliated with the troop is because it was too much classroom work focusing on merit badges, and not enough camping. They only camped three times, including summer camp, one year!

  14. Like any organization that wants to stay in business, Scouting needs to continuously evaluate and change — for the better. Unfortunately for STEM graduates, only one in four them can find a job today, according to USA Today. Scout camps are where the BSA really needs to change and evolve. Perhaps some benchmarking needs to be done. Check out some of the Y camps, which are very popular. Meanwhile, the BSA will be closing five camps in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula by Dec. 31. Scouting took a big hit in the state during the so-called Great Recession and continues to struggle financially. Closing camps may be needed now, but it is just short-term action. It has been said that, “You can’t save your way to prosperity.” In other words, someone needs to roll up their sleeves and come up with a long-term plan.

  15. THANK YOU FOR STEM. My boy scout has been a living history primitive camper since birth. He is not interested in the camping aspect of BS because we camp so often with our Rev. War artillery crew and 18th century living history events, he’s tired of making brush shelters, tracking, camping without coolers when on campaigns, starting fires without matches or lighters etc.. He is also gifted and extremely smart and also challenged with Asperger’s Syndrome. He was ready to quit scouting outright due to the constant camping repetition and being bored redoing the same stuff. Thankfully, the STEM badges have re-engaged his interest. He already owns and plays with Snap Circuits and Legos Mindstorm systems, taken rocketry and robotics courses with 4H programs Now if I could only find a MB counselor to mentor and sign off for him in Central Pa…Animation, Robotics,Digital tech. ,and game design….

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