When my best friend Dave and I joined the Boy Scouts as kids, we didn’t do it for the education. Oh, we knew all about merit badges and how we needed to earn them to advance in rank. And we earned our share, but not because we thought they would help us in school.
We liked to think of ourselves a great explorers. Dave was Davy Crockett; I was Daniel Boone.
We loved camping out, chopping firewood, hiking, and finding our own way in the woods. We were particularly good with compass and map, and didn’t realize until later how these other skills learned in the scouts helped us in classes like mathematics, geography, even history at school.
But by today’s standards, what we learned in scouts is far outmoded. Scouts earning merit badges learn about everything from communications to app design, something about which the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), one of the nation’s most prominent youth development organizations, is well aware.
Recently it has expanded STEM Scouts (its highly innovative and donation-based program) to Northern New Jersey and introduced it to three schools in Newark, Union City, and Jersey City, attracting more than 90 children.
This after-school program at Thomas Edison School in Union City and Dr. Charles Defuccio in Jersey City is designed to enhance the skills students need for classes they take as part of their yearly curriculum.
STEM Scouts is a stand-alone program for boys and girls in 3rd to 12th grades. Like merit badges that have traditionally been a part of scouting, the program is designed to provide a fun way to learn about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM.)
Successful elsewhere in the country, the Boy Scouts Northern New Jersey Council is launching a pilot program in Hudson County and Newark to test just how well it will work.
“We want to expand the program,” said Rebecca Fields, scout executive and chief executive officer for the Northern New Jersey Council of Boy Scouts of America
The program was developed because some studies show that youth tend to lose interest in STEM by the time they reach high school. Furthermore, the state of New Jersey is in desperate need of STEM graduates and relies heavily on qualified candidates to fix the crumbling infrastructure, expand its transit system and address growing cyber security concerns, among other applications. In other words, encouraging inner city kids to pursue highly-lucrative and stimulating STEM careers will not only elevate them out of low-wage jobs but also fuel the economic engine of New Jersey where STEM positions are going unfilled in large numbers.
Fields said the three schools were selected because they are urban schools.
“We are very excited about having an opportunity to empower these students,” Fields said, noting that the program becomes part of the community.
While STEM appears to be in vogue in schools these days, Stem Scouting is unique in several ways, Fields said.
“This a very well-rounded program,” she said.
Scouts gather after school in 6 to 8 week learning modules in a program that was developed to be thought-provoking and challenging.
Scouts get to do hands-on experiments, and interact with STEM professionals who help them learn the academic concepts as well as how this body of knowledge relates to real-world jobs.
Developed by a team of scientists and engineers, and vetted by STEM educators, the program includes field trips and professional guest speakers, designed to build not just a body of education, by endowed with the basic scouting mandate to also build character,
The study increases in complexity as it goes along, and helps those scouts involved develop new skills at a time when there is a demand for these skills in the job market.
Filling a jobs gap
STEM-related jobs are expected to grow by more than 17 percent by the end of 2018, according to statistics supplied by the scouts. Salaries for these jobs are about 26 percent higher than non-STEM related jobs.
Fields said scouting has always been involved in some of the educational aspects of STEM through its merit badge program. Merit badges are earned when scouts become proficient in a particular subject.
“Boy Scouts have been doing this through its program and so we thought why not fine tune it,” Fields said.
The pilot program partnered with these local schools where scouts can use labs and classrooms.
“We had conversations with some of the schools in the community, these three schools said they’d be interested,” Field said. The scouts already had a relationship with these schools, she added.
Although STEM Scouting is a national program, each council has the option to set it up within their area. The pilot program in these three schools is designed to test how effective they are and how well received.
The program started in October, in third and fourth grades, but will continue with the students as they advance through the grades, with the program expanding as they progress.
“If these students go onto junior high school, we’ll start up a program in junior high, or at least that’s the plan depending on the resources.”
The scouts are looking for local sponsors and professionals that will get involved as mentors, lecturers or financial donors.
“We looking for local businesses to get involved,” Field said. “Materials are expensive. While we have Pfizer as a sponsor and other anonymous sponsors, we need more in order to expand and grows. We need funds every year as we advance.”
Although there are some scout troops in the area, this program is being run independently of them by the council.
Scouts meet immediately after school, and go to the lab where they used the equipment on a variety of projects. Parent are encouraged to volunteer, which helps create a family and community bond.
Depending on the subject matter at the time, the program will invite an expert on the subject.
While this program runs during the school year, the scouts have a sister program – a summer STEM day camp – that allows scouts to keep their skills honed while not attending regular school.
The scouts in the program work as a team on life lessons, and learn by doing. They get achievement awards, and like many scouting programs, this also emphasizes the need to be physically fit.
As students advance, the subject gets more complex, and this also spills over into school work where students are also learning STEM-related material.
“The goal of this well-rounded curriculum is to educate children in underserved urban areas about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It teaches character and helps students develop some of the most sought-after skills including leadership, critical thinking, teamwork and creativity.
“The main objective – our strategic plan – is to have strong pillars represent scouting and career development,” Fields said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.