When Christine Haney Douglass thinks back over the last year, she can recall some disappointments, challenges and changed plans for her family.
But she’s also grateful — grateful to her colleagues at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln who stepped up to work with her son, Parker, and a handful of his friends, as they continued to work toward earning merit badges in Boy Scouts. Thanks to them, four members of Boy Scout Troop 256 had the opportunity to engage in safe, hands-on learning experiences that they’ll never forget.
Though no formal relationship exists between the university and Boy Scouts of America, Douglass was impressed to find out there are deep, informal connections.
“I looked at the list of badge counselors for STEM badges, and it just so happened that we had two who were UNL faculty — Chad Brassil and Terry Stentz,” Douglass said.
After talking with a coworker in the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences, Douglass also learned of opportunities for the Scouts on campus. She contacted Judy Wu-Smart, assistant professor of entomology and Nebraska Extension specialist, and Annie Krueger, a graduate student in entomology to set up tours of the Bee Lab and Monarch Lab.
“I’m not sure if they’ve done this for a lot of Scouts, but I was amazed at the time they spent with the children,” Douglass said. “Dr. Wu-Smart spent more than an hour and a half with them, and they went to the Monarch Lab, and Annie Krueger spent an hour with them, walking them through each life stage of a monarch butterfly.”
Donning full bee suits, Wu-Smart led the Scouts through a field demonstration. They got to examine hives themselves and learn about pollinator roles in ecosystems.
“The Bee Lab was my favorite activity because I was allowed to put on one of the new bee suits and got to use one of their tools to inspect the bee hives,” said Isaac Hiser, who took part as a Boy Scout. “It was a little scary having the bees on the face shield, but I did not get stung. I feel so lucky to have been able to do this activity.”
Wu-Smart said she regularly does these demonstrations for scouting groups, 4-H clubs and others.
“The importance of bees and pollinators are topics of great interest to the public and children are also drawn to the fascinating world of insects,” Wu-Smart said. “These are great opportunities to share with the public regarding beneficial insects as well as open dialogue about science literacy.”
Following the tour of the Monarch Lab with Krueger, the Scouts were each given a caterpillar to monitor its growth into a butterfly, which was an experience full of surprises.
“I spent three weeks raising my monarch butterfly,” Parker said. “I learned that monarchs go through a lot of shedding of their skins, and got to watch it ‘J-ing’ before it built the chrysalis.”
To earn the entomology merit badge, Parker and his middle-school-aged peers spent 12 hours learning, a large chunk spent with Wu-Smart and Krueger. They’ll meet soon, via Zoom, with Brassil and Stentz to present what they’ve learned and answer questions from the counselors.
Stentz, associate professor and graduate chair in the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction, and associate professor in the UNMC College of Public Health, said he knows of many faculty members who are involved with Scouting, and he’s thankful to be able to give back to the organization that set him on his career path. He hopes his work with the Boy Scouts now has a similar effect.
“I would say that my career as an engineer in public health really started when I earned the public health merit badge, which was a required merit badge for Eagle Scout,” Stentz said. “I got the public health merit badge and when I went through the requirements, I thought, ‘wow this is interesting. It’s science with engineering together.’ It came back around full circle later in life.”
Brassil, associate professor of biological sciences, agreed.
“Scouting was a tremendous influence in my development as a person,” he said. “I owe my career as an ecologist, in part, to my experiences in scouting. My first exposure to ecology was the environmental science merit badge. I remember sitting in the forest and taking notes, observing what I saw. And now I am a counselor for youth who are doing merit badges, so that’s a fun sort of career moment.”
The experiences her son and his peers had, thanks in part to her colleagues, will likely lead to lifelong curiosity and learning, Douglass said.
“The boys, when they first started thinking of working on an entomology badge, they weren’t terribly excited about it,” Douglass said. “When they got (to the bee lab), they were kind of excited and started asking millions of questions. When you’re really getting hands-on and you can ask questions in real time, you’re learning so much more quickly and in a different way. Your mind is mapping that information in a different way. I think they learned so much more through these experiences than just reading about them.”