1st Annual Montana Merit Badge University for the Boy Scouts

Glenn McKinnon

 

Pottery, horsemanship, roller skating, scuba diving, wood carving.

These were just a few of the 30 classes offered at the first-ever Boy Scout Merit Badge University in Montana, hosted by Carroll College, Saturday.

Some scouts will earn merit badges. Others might pick up a lifelong passion.

For others, it could open the door to college and a career.

For five scouts in wood carving, it was a chance to not only play with sharp knives, but create something fun and useful.

Hatchet-shaped neckerchief slides were the order of the day.

The scouts took pieces of basswood in one thickly gloved hand and a scalpel-sharp carving knife in the other and sent woodchips flying.

“It just sounded like fun, said 12-year old Montana City scout James Romney.

“Wood carving is a thing of beauty,” added 11-year-old Dylan Marks of Helena. “Wood can be made into beautiful things, so when I saw this class I thought I should try it.”

“It’s really fun and it’s going to be my new hobby,” said Patterson Pitman, 12, of East Helena. “I like knives, but I never really carved anything.”

“I thought it would be fun to create something besides chips,” said Adam Mays, 11, of Helena. “I’ve always liked whittling, but I never made anything.”

“That’s the difference between whittling and wood carving,” said teacher Steve McCann, who has been a scout for 35 years.

“Wood carving is a lifelong thing,” said McCann. “You can do it when you’re hiking and camping. When I worked at Asarco and traveled a lot, that’s when I took it up. I could carry it with me.”

Some scouts have found their careers while earning merit badges, he told the boys. “The classic story is Steven Spielberg, who took a photo class as a scout and went on to become a movie producer. I know of kids who’ve done a plumbing or electricity merit badge and became plumbers or electricians. That’s what it’s all about.”

Scouting classes are also about teaching basic skills like cooking, which several of the woodcarvers were signed up for. While others opted for music or horsemanship.

For some, Saturday’s class offered a chance to dive into an activity they can’t do in their hometown.

John Klein, a 12-year-old from Havre, was scuba diving in the Carroll pool with seven other scouts.

Two master divers, one of them Glenn McKinnon, owner of Helena Scuba, were joined by three scuba-diving Carroll College students helping out.

Among the things they taught was safety, said Carroll student and diver Sabrina Harding. They also showed them equipment — the BCD (buoyancy control device), tanks, inflator and deflator and Octopus, some basic hand signals for communicating underwater, how to find their regulator if it comes loose and how to clear their masks from fogging.

It’s an introduction to basic diving skills, she said. None of the scouts had ever done scuba diving; a few had snorkeled.

“It’s great. It’s very addictive,” said Harding. Diving has taken her to such places as Australia’s Barrier Reef to tag sharks, the Caribbean, New Zealand, California and a number of aquariums.

Klein loved it. “I think it’s awesome,” he said. “I like it a lot. It feels like snorkeling but it’s a lot more complicated.”

The idea for the merit badge university was cooked up over a Boy Scout campfire this past summer, when Carroll College President and Eagle Scout Tom Evans shared the idea with Chris Laity, a fellow Boy Scout assistant leader for Helena Troop 214.

Evans, who moved here from Texas, was familiar with the University of Texas at Austin’s Merit Badge University.

Laity, local scout leaders and Carroll faculty and students ran with the idea. This first Merit Badge University drew 140 scouts from across Montana, and they expect the number to double next year.

“A merit badge is a first glimpse into what these skills or careers are about,” said Laity, lead organizer of Saturday’s event.

One outcome organizers are working for is to get more boys into college.

Currently in colleges across the country, the student gender balance is 60 percent female and 40 percent male, which is also the case at Carroll.

The Merit Badge University gets Boy Scouts on a college campus, Laity said. With college students as teachers, it makes the whole experience less scary.

“I’m really excited about it,” Laity said. “It’s the first time we’ve done it, and we got great support from Carroll College and from the scouting organization.”

“We’re really happy,” said Evans, who was also teaching scouting classes on Saturday.

They were hoping for 70 scouts the first year, he said, and double that number showed up.

When Evans sent out an email about Merit Badge University, faculty, staff and students signed up in droves, he said. At least 40 Carroll students were signed up as scout leaders, said Laity.

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