B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
The Samoset Council’s mobile STEM lab, which will visit schools and events to promote the new tech-focused Scouting program.
More than a dozen students are focused intently on their project in a classroom at North Central Technical College. On this Thursday evening, they’ve been divided into four groups, each with an engineer, a project manager, an architect and a builder. They’re simulating a team that will design and build a bridge able to withstand the most weight possible. Concentration levels are high and conversations intense as plans are made and models are tested.
This isn’t a college class. These are Scouts, boys and girls in grades three through five, with Popsicle sticks and straws in front of them. The competition is fierce to build the strongest bridge. The prize: getting to smash the instructor’s pre-made bridge into bits. The prospect of a bit of mayhem spurs them on.
They’ve signed up for a new type of Scouting, and this particular group, along with several others around the area, is part of a national pilot program created by the Boy Scouts of America to instill wonder for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The co-ed program, available for grades 3-12, aims to recruit future STEM professionals and provide exposure to real-world opportunities.
Forget about the camping weekends, tying knots to earn merit badges, canoeing, cooking or geocaching. Instead of building fires, STEM Scouts build trestle bridges; instead of studying weather patterns, they study robot programming.
That’s attracting a new kind of youth, many who aren’t interested in or didn’t fit into traditional Scouting, says Amanda Flannery, director of the STEM program for the Samoset Council Boy Scouts of America.
In 2015, the Weston-based Samoset Council, which covers 13 counties in north central Wisconsin, was among the first 12 councils out of 243 total in the United States chosen to launch STEM Scouts. Of those 12, Samoset is easily the most rural, with other STEM programs in places such as Chicago, Tucson or Denver. Samoset also was likely chosen because of its strong, overall Scouting program—it ranks third among the 243 councils.
And remarkably, Samoset has the highest participation rate of those 12 pilot programs, Flannery says.
With the number of STEM-related jobs expected to grow—U.S. Labor Statistics project more than 9 million by 2022, an increase of more than 1 million from 2012— the importance of getting more children interested in those fields is becoming increasingly important to America’s workforce.
That interest, it turns out, isn’t hard to foster in the Wausau area with boys and girls alike. If the STEM Scouts early success is any indication, plenty of kids have the interest; they just needed the opportunity. Watching a group of third graders tackle an engineering problem with little outside direction is pretty convincing.
“I promised you last week we could build a bridge next week and that’s what we’re going to do,” says Robert Gregurich of Weston, a parent volunteer, who leads the class at NTC with his wife, Michelle.
B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Robert Gregurich demonstrates the design principles of a triangle to the co-ed group of STEM Scouts. Lauren Edwards (back) and her sister Avery tried a year of Girl Scouts but found their niche in STEM Scouts. “It’s a highlight of their week,” says their father.
“Will this be a suspension bridge?” A boy asks from the back.
“Oh no, this is way cooler,” Gregurich says, enthusiasm in his voice. “One of my favorite pastimes passes over these bridges.”
Boys and girls alike, shout out various types of bridges they might be building. Finally one child in the back calls out the correct answer: a trestle bridge. “You have your book open to the next chapter, don’t you?” Gregurich laughs. The boy sheepishly but proudly nods his head.
The girls and boys in the class show remarkable restraint, considering they already have the building materials in front of them: a set number of straws, popsicle sticks and toothpicks, along with some glue.
But first things first. Like any scout meeting, students stand and recite the Scout pledge and Scout law — creeds about helping people, keeping strong and staying mentally awake and morally straight. Then it’s down to bridge-building business.
Parents line the back of the room. Some occasionally help when asked, but Gregurich doesn’t need them much. The students are interested in the task, and many of the parents alternate between observing and typing away on laptops and smartphones. The kids don’t need much encouragement or cajoling to participate—the prospect of a contest only helps propel their interest.
But before they begin, Gregurich gives them some lessons on bridge design. What’s the strongest shape? Gregurich asks. Students name all manner of shapes, including squares and trapezoids, but most give the right answer: a triangle. Gregurich shows them different bridges and points to how triangular structures are incorporated into each design. He explains how weight is distributed from the top point to the entire bottom platform of the triangle.
Gregurich admits he’s learned a lot himself through teaching the STEM Scouts program. “One of the big things for me was when we studied suspension bridges,” Gregurich says. “It’s held up entirely by those cables. Every time you drive across one, you think about that.”
The future professionals
If you’re reading this in the evening, there’s a chance that a Samoset STEM Scout meeting is happening right now. Participation in the program started off strong and grew quickly in its second year, Flannery says. Last school year (the STEM Scout season roughly follows that calendar) the Samoset council saw 253 scouts participate, Flannery says. So far this season, 330 have signed up.
B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Justin Gregurich and Bryce Blaubach engineer a model trestle bridge during a STEM Scout lab held every week at NTC.
Girls made up 45% of the participation in STEM Scouts. That stat could be key to the program’s effectiveness. Women have historically been less involved in STEM fields, and large tech companies today struggle with how to diversify their workforce and avoid “bro-culture” monikers.
In a 2016 report, statistics from the National Science Foundation indicate that while gender had little to do with enrollment in science classes at an early age, male students were more likely to enroll in higher-level engineering classes (3% of male students versus 1% of female students) and computer science classes (7% versus 4%).
The co-ed nature of STEM Scouts seems to work, as boy and girl STEM Scouts equally throw out ideas, give suggestions, and otherwise involve themselves in the discussion.
Because the lessons are so task oriented, the students stay occupied and interested. The 90 minutes can go surprisingly fast, Gregurich says.
Parents and students alike seem to love it.
“We’re pretty proud of it here,” Flannery says. “We’ve got lots of support from the community — I think working in a smaller community makes it easier to get volunteers to get things done.”
What’s also interesting is that while some STEM Scouts came from other traditional scouting programs, the vast majority are new to Scouting or didn’t find their niche in either Boy or Girl Scouts. The opportunity to direct the same Scouting principles toward areas of technology attracted a whole new demographic, Flannery says.
The STEM Scouts program is open from third graders all the way through seniors in high school. Scouts meet weekly in labs under the tutelage of either parent volunteers or volunteer STEM professionals (all middle school or high school labs have at least one STEM professional). Those labs are spread out through Wausau, Wisconsin Rapids, Nekoosa and Marshfield. And it’s all very hands on. While the kids spend some time learning the principles of a project, they spend most of the time applying what they’ve learned to solve problems.
A STEM Lab consists of five to 15 youth that meet weekly to engage in modules such as “Chemistry Mania,” “Hydro-Hype,” “Robotics” and more. Each module runs four to six weeks and often include field trips.
While STEM Scouts aren’t camping to earn merit badges, staples such as the Scout Oath and Scout Law still apply. That means being a good citizen, being respectful of others opinions and demonstrating integrity in all aspects of their lives.
And those famous Scout badges? Here, they’re electronic, of course. Completing a module helps Scouts earn a number of e-badges. Scouts can delve deeper through individual learning modules completed on their own, and middle and high school Scouts can earn opportunities to participate in an online, peer-reviewed journal.
A different kind of Scout
To help spread the STEM Scout word, the Samoset Council purchased a mobile STEM lab, thanks to a donation by the local Paul and Ruth Schultz Foundation. Starting this spring, the lab will visit schools to offer activities and experiments including 3D modeling, robotics, “monster” genetics, paper helicopters, electrical circuits and the chemistry of Play-Doh.
The mobile lab also will show up at special events—the truck appeared at downtown Wausau’s The 400 Block for Winter Fest last Saturday—to reach families that maybe haven’t even heard of STEM Scouts yet.
Despite not using a computer herself, Ruth Schultz, 96, funded the mobile STEM lab because she can see that technology is the future. “It gets the children interested in that stuff,” Schultz says. ‘They get to see and do different things, and that’s good.
Many local businesses and organizations jumped at the chance to host STEM Scout modules. Jarp Industries, which manufactures hydraulics, is one of those. Two Jarp employees currently help run labs, says owner Kevin Kraft. “They’re enjoying it. The Scouts are doing a wonderful job putting everything together.”
Kraft says building the future workforce is important in tech industries like his. “The challenge right now is a lot of engineers and other technically inclined people are retiring from the workforce,” Kraft says. “We want to connect with kids at an early age, because that’s our future workforce.”
Gregurich became a STEM Scout teacher primarily for the sake of his son, Justin. When Gregurich was a kid, he was the type of person to pull apart household items and put them back together. “My mother used to joke that my brother could take anything apart and I could put it back together,” Gregurich says.
His eight-year-old son Justin is the same way, Gregurich says, and didn’t fit into the traditional scout program like his older brother did. “Camping wasn’t his thing,” Gregurich says. “He didn’t fit in, it wasn’t him. He was big into science, anything he can tear apart or build, or come up with on his own.”
STEM Scouts ended up being the perfect fit, Gregurich says.
The same could be said of Lauren Edwards, 10, who worked alongside Justin and Bryce Blaubach, 10, on the bridge project. Lauren and her sister, Avery, are both in the STEM Scouts, and prefer it to traditional Girl Scout activities. “I like building and doing stuff like that,” Lauren says. “Not a lot of places have programs like this, so it’s cool that we have the opportunity.”
Justin also chimed in while setting one of the trestles of the bridge into place. “I tried it,” he said of traditional Boy Scouts. “You don’t get to build anything.”
The boys and girls concentrate on their bridges, discuss problems, and work through solutions with little assistance. Gregurich says that’s a focus of the program—give them a task that teaches them to come up with solutions, which in turn helps them internalize the principles being taught.
Douglas Edwards, one of those parents in the back of the room, says both of his daughters, Lauren and Avery, tried a year of Girl Scouts but found their niche in STEM Scouts. “They definitely look forward to it; it’s a highlight of their week.”
Edwards says he has a background in science, so his family’s interest was quickly piqued when they learned about STEM Scouts. “I think any time you’re exposed to these concepts — engineering, science — those are practical things to take with you into later life, or as lifetime skills,” Edwards says.
Diana Budde, a UW-Marathon County art instructor whose 11-year-old children are in the program, says they already have shown a proclivity for those subjects. Enrolling them in STEM Scouts was an easy decision. “It’s an intellectual challenge for them,” Budde says. “They like working with their hands and figuring out problems.”
So there’s learning, there’s science, there are life skills. And as Justin Gregurich on that Thursday night summed up, “I will stay in this every year. This is the most fun Scouts I’ve ever done.”
For more information on the local STEM Scout program, see SamosetCouncil.org, call 715-355-1450, or visit the Scout Center at 3511 Camp Phillips Road in Weston