The U.S. has a shortage of professionals working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Better get the children prepared now.
Instead of learning survival skills, a new co-ed program from the Boy Scouts of America–called the STEM Scouts–has kids doing activities to learn about subjects like physics and biology. It’s a natural evolution for the organization, according to Trent Nichols and April McMillan, BSA’s National Directors of STEM Programs.
“The Boy Scouts has a history of trying to serve the nation’s needs. In World War I and II, the Boy Scouts gathered up things for the war effort. Right now, two National Academy of Sciences reports came out saying we have a critical shortage of qualified STEM professionals. This is a way to help in that need,” says Nichols.
Before launching the program, Nichols and McMillan–former BSA volunteers in Tennessee–conducted market research to see if the STEM Scouts program would appeal to parents. It did. Now the initiative has over 375 kids, ranging from grades three to 12, in a pilot initiative located in Knoxville, Tennessee. There is a 90% attendance rate.
As part of the program, the kids are divided into elementary, middle, and high school divisions, and meet once a week for 90 minutes. For four to six weeks at a time, they focus on theme-based modules. In April, there was a module on water, so the kids learned about water sustainability and purification. For a physics module, they created a life-sized game of Angry Birds. One team created the rules, one team developed the launcher, and one team built the net. At the end, they came together to play the game.
“Oftentimes, we’ll just have a collection of materials and put them to use. We feel especially with elementary aged youth that the most important thing is they have a good time. We want them to associate learning and science with having fun,” says Nichols. “As two career scientists, it’s fun to us.”
Breanna Norman, 11, has been involved in the STEM Scouts for eight months. She’s the target audience for the program–a curious kid who wants to be an engineer and fills out a non-school related math workbook in her free time. Some of her favorite projects have included the egg drop challenge (where you try to cushion an egg so that it survives a long fall) and an Alka-Seltzer rocket building activity. “The hands-on activities that you get to do are things you wouldn’t get to do in a sixth-grade science class,” she says.
Joining the STEM Scouts has only made Breanna more passionate about math and science, according to her parents. She now uses information learned with the Scouts to fix small things around the house.
In the fall of 2015, STEM Scouts is expanding to 12 new cities, including Austin, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Tucson, Arizona; and Denver, Colorado. The experiments will be tailored to the region. A troop in a desert city, for example, probably won’t be able to do a stream ecology module. “Part of this is to expose kids to opportunities that are around them,” says Nichols. “We hope to see thousands more STEM Scouts across the country now.”