How this merit badge counselor helped 450 Scouts earn one of the 10 rarest badges

Erin McCown Foster and her family. (Courtesy of the Foster family)

One day last year, Lisa Casko was working from home when something caught her ear.

Keeping in mind the BSA’s Youth Protection guidelines, Casko had positioned herself near her son so she could monitor the merit badge class he was taking over Zoom.

It didn’t sound like a typical Zoom class with lectures and an endless scroll of text-heavy slides. It sounded fun.

“It didn’t take long for me to abandon what I was working on and listen with my full attention,” Casko says. “What an interesting class!”

The subject was the Landscape Architecture merit badge. The teacher: Erin McCown Foster, a merit badge counselor in the Greater St. Louis Area Council, mom of three Scouts and professional landscape architect.

Exactly 1,400 Scouts earned the Landscape Architecture merit badge in 2020, according to the official numbers.

Foster was responsible for 450 of those Scouts — an astounding 32%. Scouts from all over the United States have taken her Landscape Architecture merit badge course via Zoom, including Scouts from Puerto Rico. She’s even had Scouts BSA members from overseas sign up, receiving blue cards from Scouts living in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Central America.

“I thought that maybe by providing these classes I could keep Scouts engaged in Scouting, provide a connection to others during a time of social distancing and maybe help other families like mine keep their kids mentally fit during unprecedented times,” she says. “In the end, it helped me get though the last year of social isolation, too.”

How does Foster make the Landscape Architecture merit badge so exciting? What can other merit badge counselors learn from her about teaching classes over Zoom? And why does she devote so much time and energy to an unpaid gig?

We asked to find out.

Some of the blue cards Scouts have sent to Foster. (Courtesy of Erin McCown Foster)

Taking it personally

When Foster’s oldest son joined Scouts BSA, he was really interested in merit badges. Foster examined the list herself and saw one jump out.

She was delighted to learn her career had its own merit badge.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” she says. “My profession is still not well known, and we struggle to get enough students to study landscape architecture and follow through into full licensure. In fact, there are way more jobs than there are landscape architects, and the demand is just increasing.”

She also found the 2019 edition of this blog’s annual merit badge rankings. Landscape Architecture MB, she saw, ranked 130th out of 137.

“That hurt, as I have spent 25 years of my life in this profession,” she says. “When I realized it was not because Scouts weren’t interested but because of availability of counselors, I signed up.”

She set a goal to do everything she could to pull Landscape Architecture out of the bottom 10 in 2020.

It did not happen, but it did move up one spot,” she says. “So now we’re into 2021, and I’m going to try again.”

She’s doing so through a pair of tactics:

  1. By continuing to offer expert merit badge counseling to as many Scouts as she can.
  2. By reaching out to other landscape architecture professionals to encourage them to become counselors and “grow the exposure of our profession to America’s youth.”

How long?

Foster spends about 10 hours a week on the administrative side of teaching merit badges.

That includes keeping up the Facebook page, signing blue cards, registering Scouts, answering questions from parents and more. The classes themselves last from 90 minutes to 2.5 hours.

How much?

Initially, all of Foster’s classes were free. After six to eight months of absorbing all the costs herself, she pressed pause. Between the costs of a premium Zoom subscription, envelopes, postage and blue cards, she was spending a lot.

“I polled the parents on my Facebook page and asked if they would be willing to pay a small fee to offset costs,” Foster says. “The response was overwhelmingly yes.”

She now charges Scouts $2 per class. But she’s quick to point out that she would never turn away a Scout who cannot pay.

She keeps a detailed record of expenses and fees and donates any leftover funds to her council’s Friends of Scouting campaign.

How fun?

Foster’s classes are interactive by design. And no two are ever the same.

“I’m not there to lecture them but encourage and guide conversation,” she says. “I have lots of visuals and props to show the Scouts. I tell the Scouts that I want to hear their ideas, and if they raise their hand, I will call on them — even if every Scout wished to speak on the same point. I think it’s important to let them know that their voice matters and that another adult wants to hear what they have to say.”

How to sign up

Foster plans to continue offering merit badges as long as there are interested Scouts. In addition to the Landscape Architecture merit badge, she also offers Architecture, Soil and Water Conservation, and Sustainability.

To learn more, parents can find her on Facebook.

Erin McCown Foster is a professional landscape architect and member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. (Courtesy of Erin McCown Foster)

How to teach a merit badge over Zoom

Foster is humble, telling Bryan on Scouting that “there are thousands of counselors all over this country helping Scouts. I’m not anyone special.”

But she’s hit on a formula that resonates, so we asked for her top tips.

  1. Fit the format. Zoom is not the same as being in person, so don’t try to emulate the in-person experience.
  2. Let Scouts talk. When instructing over Zoom, allow Scouts to share relevant stories and experiences from their specific geographical area. For example, some Scouts from California were able to talk about earthquake risk as it pertains to landscape architecture. “These personal stories stay with the Scouts better than me lecturing,” Foster says. “Once one Scout shares, others typically jump in.”
  3. Let Scouts teach. Scouts BSA is a Scout-led program, so ask Scouts what they know about the topic first. “Often the Scouts can actually teach each other some of the subject material,” Foster says. “This type of learning is what Scouting is all about. I’m there to guide, encourage and expand.”
  4. Encourage the quiet Scout. Making a relaxed, friendly and casual Zoom environment can help you connect with the quiet Scout. “I always think I have succeeded in a class when the quiet Scout finally raises their hand,” Foster says. “I tell the Scouts that I will not call them out — that it is their responsibility to participate.”
  5. Don’t teach directly from a slide show. PowerPoints can be painfully boring — just ask … everyone. “I use my slide show as a guide,” Foster says. “It’s full of photos and light on text. Use your visuals to inspire conversation, not dictate it.” Foster also says you should Be Prepared to go off course if things aren’t working for a specific group.
  6. Set ground rules for Zoom sessions. Foster requires Scouts to wear uniforms, have their videos on and actively participate — even if they choose not to speak up (see No. 4). “Try to emulate an in-person experience in this way only,” she says. “Merit badges are not a spectator event.”
  7. Find out about special needs. Foster’s classes are open to all Scouts — period. She asks parents to let her know if their Scout has special needs and asks how she can help them be most comfortable and get the most out of class. “I have had nonverbal Scouts have parents be their voice, high-anxiety Scouts who need to have only the top of their head showing in the Zoom video and many Scouts on the spectrum who may need extra time to formulate their answers,” she says. “Be aware and proactive.”

Checking the mail

Merit badge counselors don’t do their job for the thank-you cards, but they’re always appreciated.

Last summer, a Scout sent Foster his blue card along with a handwritten note and his council shoulder patch.

“Of course, I excitedly shared a photo online and thanked the Scout,” she says. “Little did I know that it would become a ‘thing.’”

In the months since, Foster has received more than 40 council shoulder patches and many more general Scouting patches. She’s grateful for every one.

“It is a lot of work to run merit badge classes on Zoom,” Foster says. “The Scouts make it worth it.”

About Bryan Wendell 3163 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.