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This week’s column is going to be a journey into the past and then a leap to some possible futures. Since I started at MAKE, and later teamed up with Ladyada at Adafruit, I’ve always wondered what the future of education might be like, and what the future of traditional organizations for kids, like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, will be like in a very modern, tech-savy world (with more and more people living in cities). To me, social networks and the maker movement are the perfect intersection of where the kids of today are. But I don’t see “leaderboards” for skills yet, I only see them for video games. I don’t see kids adding skills they’ve earned to their social networking profiles, I mostly see check-ins, bands, movies, and status updates. While historic groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, for many, are sometimes associated with camping and selling cookies, I think there might be something new ahead: a peer-to-peer way of sharing and celebrating skills using the internet (think Khan Academy). I think the scouts will ultimately go this way too, becoming “Scouts 2.0″.

Let’s jump in, but first, a quick tour of Boy Scout and Girl Scout past.

Boy Scout Past

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is one of the largest youth organizations in the United States, with over 4.5 million youth members in its age-related divisions. Since its founding in 1910 as part of the international Scout Movement, more than 110 million Americans have been members of the BSA. The BSA goal is to train youth in responsible citizenship, character development, and self-reliance through participation in a wide range of outdoor activities, educational programs, and at older age levels, career-oriented programs in partnership with community organizations. For younger members, the Scout method is part of the program to inculcate typical Scouting values such as trustworthiness, good citizenship, and outdoors skills, through a variety of activities such as camping, aquatics, and hiking.

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In 2011: 2,723,869 youth members, 1,047,038 adult members and 111,668 units (source: scouting.org media kit). It’s also a pretty big business (501(c)(3) non-profit organization) with over $133 million in income (2008). This is not only impressive in terms of kids and resources, but historically, to be called a Boy Scout has always meant: honestly and “scout’s honor.”

Mayor of New York City and business tycoon Michael Bloomberg said that the BSA’s Scout Law required of all Boy Scouts — a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent — are “all the American values … Americans have quaintly simplistic ways and direct ways of phrasing things … I think it’s one of the great strengths of this country.”

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When you hear the “Scout Mottos,” such as Be Prepared, it’s something every maker here can related to.

Boy Scout Present

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In recent times, the Boy Scouts, like any organization, has gone though challenges. Here’s a recent article from Geekdad “After 100 Years, Are The Boy Scouts Still Relevant?“. From 1998 to 2008 there are membership declines of up to -26%. With 2.7 million members now, the Boy Scouts has about half of its peak in 1972. The Geekdad article asks important questions and is filled with firsthand stories about being a scout and what it can do for a kid.

It’s hard to speculate exactly why numbers are declining (there are forums dedicated to this), but the easy guess is that parents are busy and the world of technology is often very hard to compete with. The parents (and 20-somethings) I’ve talked to researching this article all said that when both parents work and school is all about test taking, it’s hard to imagine doing more. Families are more mobile now, so being part of a troop for years can be fragmented. They also said, “It’s hard to find a kid that wants to go camping instead of playing video games.” But video games are now built around earning points, showing off status on a leaderboard, getting and unlocking achievements, just like earning a Merit Badge. And that brings me to badging.

Merit badges go hand-in-hand with scouting (Boy and Girl Scouts). What a great way to show and share something a kid has learned, and therefore earned. Earn enough and you’ve got a sash filled with skills.

Merit Badges

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Merit badges are awards earned by youth members of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), based on activities within an area of study by completing a list of periodically updated requirements. The purpose of the merit badge program is to allow Scouts to examine subjects to determine if they would like to further pursue them as a career or a vocation. Originally, the program also introduced Scouts to the life skills of contacting an adult they hadn’t met before, arranging a meeting and then demonstrating their skills, similar to a job or college interview. Increasingly, though, merit badges are earned in a class setting at troop meetings and summer camps. Each merit badge has a pamphlet (booklet) published by the Boy Scouts of America associated with it; the pamphlet contains information on completing the requirements for the badge. Scouts must meet up with their Scoutmaster to receive a signed blue card in order to begin working on a merit badge. The Scouts then contact a counselor that is registered for the particular merit badge they are interest in doing to see which requirements they need to complete before meeting up with the counselors. The Scout would meet with a counselor to demonstrate that he’s completed the requirements. The counselor would then ‘sign off’ on each one. After completing the merit badge, the Scout can then buy his merit badge patch.

There were 57 original badges in 1911. As of September 2011, there are over 127. Merit badges are seemingly endless for the Boy Scouts. Geocaching, Inventing, and Chess are recent editions, and in April of 2011, the Boy Scouts introduced the Robotics badge. Now we’re talking; however, the first thing my partner Limor asked me was, “Why doesn’t the Girl Scouts have a robotics badge, too?”.

The Girl Scouts

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And that brings us to the Girl Scouts. Starting one year after the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts also have been around for 100 years, and in fact, on March 12, 2012, it will be exactly 100 years. President Barack Obama signed the “Girl Scouts of the USA Commemorative Coin Act” for the 100th anniversary celebration, there will be a new cookie, a “Girl Scouts Rock the Mall: 100th Anniversary Sing-Along,” and events all over the USA. It’s going to be a big month this month for the Girl Scouts. How did it all get started?

The Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) is a youth organization for girls in the United States and American girls living abroad. It describes itself as “the world’s preeminent organization dedicated solely to girls.” It was founded by Juliette Gordon Low in 1912 and was organized after Low met Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, in 1911. Upon returning to Savannah, Georgia, she made her historic telephone call to a distant cousin, saying, “I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!” GSUSA aims to empower girls and to help teach values such as honesty, fairness, courage, compassion, character, sisterhood, confidence, and citizenship through activities including camping, community service, learning first aid, and earning badges by acquiring other practical skills. Girl Scouts’ achievements are recognized through rank advancement and by various special awards. Girl Scouts welcomed girls with disabilities early in their history, at a time when they were not included in most other activities.

As of 2010, the Girl Scouts have over 2,303,388 youth members and 878,904 adults (you can read their annual report here). Also a non-profit charity, the Girl Scouts is a successful “business” too. For 2010 their total income was $81.5 million.

Their mantra: “to build girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.”

The Girl Scouts also have their own challenges: membership fell by 250,000 in just five years. Depending who you ask, The Girl Scouts are generally considered more progressive than the Boy Scouts — they have a “don’t ask, don’t evangelize” policy on sexuality, and the word “God” is optional in The Promise.

Cookies

Most of all, the Girl Scouts are usually associated with their yearly cookie sales. We all love these cookie, so much that it seems to have brought the dough: in the 2010 program year, three million girls sold 198 million boxes for a record $714 million in cookie revenue. I always wondered how it worked — it’s a pretty straightforward trademark licensing deal.

Does any of the money from cookie sales go to Girl Scouts of the USA (the national Girl Scouts organization)?
A: Girl Scouts of the USA is paid a royalty for use of the licensed trademarks by its licensed vendors based on gross annual sales volume. Girl Scout councils do not provide any portion of their cookie revenue to Girl Scouts of the USA. No other revenue from cookie sales goes to Girl Scouts of the USA. Girl Scouts of the USA provides contractual services and approves all educational materials developed by the bakers, as well as providing coordination and training for national media, safety standards, leadership programs and sale guidelines.

Scouts

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That’s not all. Pictured above are some other recent merchandising efforts. There are even Girl Scout cookie pop-up stores coming.

In the annual report, it says the following:

With the single largest entrepreneurship program for girls on earth, Girl Scouting has an unmatched track record in building women leaders. Illustrious alumnae include the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, the first woman to serve as president of Harvard University, and the first woman to anchor a network evening newscast.

“Growing up, nothing got my competitive juices flowing like selling Girl Scout cookies. I would always compete with my fellow troopers, not only selling cookies but eating them too. Frozen Thin Mints were my favorite.”

—Katie Couric, ABC television personality;
former anchor, CBS Evening News

New Badges

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The Girl Scouts also have their own merit badges (Boston.com article and Neatorama) and recently added some financial-themed badges, like Good Credit and Savvy Shopper, to some techy ones, like Website Designer and Inventor. After they announced these badges in October of 2011, I spotted this interesting quote.

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Girl Scouts of the USA spokeswoman Alisha Niehaus explained in an interview that the Girl Scouts themselves helped to develop the new badges, which provide an even broader experience for the young women involved in the group. Having such a wide variety of activities encourages girls to try new things and learn skills that will enrich their lives.

“You can make your Girl Scouting experience what you want it to be,” she says. Maybe one of today’s Girl Scouts will grow up to be the next Ada Lovelace.

Now we’re talking! So I think I’ve been able to show some of the past and present of these two groups — now it’s time to talk about the future. Or least some possible futures. This is where I think the maker movement, the technology world, and these organizations all intersect.

The Future? Scouts 2.0

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In 2009, Ladyada and I thought it would be cool to reward anyone with a soldering badge. We didn’t see any merit badge for soldering so we designed our own. The plan was to create a few dozen maker-skill badges that did not exist. As the maker movement has taken off, I’ve talked with lots of parents and educators who are coming up with their own curriculum because nothing exists for many of the new maker skills. MAKE has a Learn to Solder skill badge, too. They want to have achievements and make it fun, but it’s a challenge. Competing with the internet is always hard too.

The world is changing rapidly, kids are growing up fast, and often both parents are working. The trend of humankind is to live in big cities and for all of us to be connected with various devices at all times. Kids are playing network-connected games and unlocking achievements or “checking in,” but is there a way to also include skill building in all of this? I think so.

This is where the future of the Scouts comes in (Scouts 2.0 is a fun way to think of it): the merit badge systems they have in place are perfect ways to teach, share, and celebrate skills. However, the badges seem to be lagging behind the times. While the Boy Scouts finally has a Robotics badge, how long will it take for the Girl Scouts to have one? What about a bio-hacking badge, a 3D printing badge, a laser cutter badge? These are all skills for the 21st century that millions of girls and boys should be learning.

The badges should not just be physical ones you sew on, or can only earn by taking a camping trip — they should be digital as well and flow from social profile to social profile. Like it or not, we’re all going to have a social networking profile in some way. If you’re an adult, maybe you’ve barely escaped it, but the kids today? It’s the default. So, I’ve come up with a list of ideas for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (and any other group that does badges). It’s a work in progress and I’ll revisit this later with more ideas, which are actually predictions, and some, I’m trying to help make happen. I’m mostly focusing on the badging and online thought experiments, but this is all about your ideas too!

  • Merit badges go digital: Boy and Girl Scouts award badges on their own social network(s).
  • Earn a badge online? It’s on Tumblr, Tweeted, added to Facebook/Google+ profiles.
  • Skill building: Use Google+ Hangouts to learn skills from troop leaders in other locations.
  • Nationwide leaderboard: Kids compete to earn the most skills over time.
  • Khan Academy for merit badges: Every video is online, every manual to earn a badge is a wiki. Merit badges go open source.
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  • New badges, the maker set: 3D printing, laser cutting, microcontrollers (Arduino), bio-hacking, programming (HTML 5, app dev, Linux, Processing, etc), educational UAVs, soldering.
  • A new distributed “troop” that’s virtual, based on interests, not geography.
  • Kickstarter for Girl Scouts. They’re training girls to be the ultimate business persons with these cookies, so why not make it possible for other businesses to come out of the Girl Scouts?
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  • Millions of kids are using iPhones and iPads, so an app that keeps track of their merit badges and ways to earn more of the digital ones.
  • “Mobile app/digital” versions of badges: It should be possible to check into skills just like checking into a location. There are privacy and location issues, more so with kids, but this is the world we’re in now. Every kid has a supercomputer with them, so maybe we can work toward figuring out ways to celebrate skill earning with them. There’s already an official Girl Scout Cookie App in iTunes (above).
  • Uniforms can be optional, but wearing something you made should be mandatory, from wearable electronics to fashion.
  • Which org will have the most repositories in GitHub? Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts? In the future, your repos and forks are all that matter.
  • Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts partner with hackerspaces, makerspaces, TechShop, Maker Faires, and FabLabs to have on-site workshops to earn badges and skills. Every Girl Scout should have access to a discounted membership at TechShop if there’s one in their area.
  • Or, go one step further, the local Girl/Boy Scout Troop IS a membership-based hackerspace for kids.

It’s an easy guess, but if I had to place a bet on the future and what organization will do this, I would say the Girl Scouts have the best chance of really adopting most of these. So instead of just putting ideas out there, I’m going to offer up the badges you saw above that I worked on at Adafruit with Limor, our designer Bruce, and our team. If the Girl Scouts want to use the badges we’ve designed to modern-up their merit badge offerings, we’ll work with them to make it happen. I really don’t know what’s possible, but I’d love to see kids earn 3D printing badges. These are just some of the ones we made — there are other ones we asked permission to use.

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For example, Instructables gave us permission to make a badge. It would be awesome to see the Girl Scouts use Instructables and work with them directly.

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Not only that, I have a real, working prototype of the digital badge system as well. This is a leaderboard system we developed, and for now we have five beta testers. Each week or so, Ladyada awards a badge to a young person who she’s seen, who has made something.

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They sign in to the site, get a real/physical badge sent to them in the mail, and the digital profile is online to show and share. We’re working on an API — there’s an XML feed for now of recently earned badges. This too is something we’d love to chat about with someone at the Girl Scouts to see what’s possible. I’m sure there are cookie sale ranking possibilities too : ) But the thing I’m most interested in is maker badges being added.

There are many many efforts going on with badges, from FourSquare to the Mozilla Foundation. I’d like to see organizations like 4-H also consider these ideas and possibilities. 4-H IS the new generation of bio-hackers! When you add up the number of kids in 4-H, FIRST, Boy/Girl Scouts, and the kids who come to Maker Faires, we really have a chance for all of them to interact in amazing ways using the internet. And maybe, just maybe, we can make earning skills as popular (and fun) as being on a video game leaderboard. Or who knows, maybe this can be the start of a completely independent Scout effort, “Hacker Scouts” — one that is born in the 21st century and starts from scratch.

Now it’s your turn — post up in the comments real, actionable ideas for these groups to consider. Don’t talk about what’s wrong with these groups, stick to what’s right and offer up new ideas using all the great tech we have to bring together skill learning and kids.

Go!

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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