Young Scouts Now Earn Badges in Robotics, Biohacking

Young Scouts Now Earn Badges in Robotics, Biohacking

A new set of badges are bringing young Boy and Girl Scouts into the 21st century, catering to an emerging group of “digital natives” integrating technological know-how into every aspect of their lives.

Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.

Mobile technology is creating new learning and entertainment opportunities, changing the way children interact and enjoy activities. Even traditional activities like earning Scout badges is transformed, as New York-based open source hardware company Adafruit begins to offer a broad set of skill badges that build on the growing tech prowess of young learners.

To modernize and expand outmoded badge earning programs for kids, Adafruit developed a system that includes badge offerings for high-altitude balloon experiments, operating systems projects, a “drawdio” badge celebrating combining drawing and music, as well as biohacking and robotics, to name just a few.

When the kids complete the work and are awarded one of these badges, they can purchase a physical badge for a few dollars and get a digital version, along with an online profile to collect, organize and share other badges online.

The program’s online leaderboard encourages friendly competition for individuals to showcase their ingenuity and “geek skills,” and the company expects to open the system to other developers to add even more badges and projects.

“The goal is to celebrate skill earning the same way kids play video games,” Torrone said to CNET, “unlocking achievements and earning badges,” adding that if the Girl Scouts want to use the company’s badge program to “modern-up” their merit badge offerings, they would work with the organization to make that happen.

While Adafruit’s private, beta-level badges aren’t currently affiliated with a scouting organization, their program could be something the Girl Scouts organization, which will celebrate its 100th birthday on March 12, may want to consider.

To commemorate the milestone, President Barack Obama signed the “Girl Scouts of the USA Commemorative Coin Act,” the organization debuted a new cookie, and scheduled sing-alongs and other activities building up to the big day. But joining in on an program like Adafruit could give the organization a digital facelift.

For their part, the Boy Scouts of America have more than doubled the 57 original badges it offered in 1911, including recent additions like “Geocaching,” “Inventing” and “Chess.” The direction Adafruit is taking, though, could help transform the organization with peer-to-peer focused activities, using 21st-century tools and technology.

The children who now comprise membership in Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and other youth-oriented clubs have been raised with technology since birth. These “digital natives” turn to devices to fulfill functions of friendship, exploration, creativity and even parenting, and underscore how technology blurs the line between education and playing.

In anticipation of this sea change, Apple is reinventing easily worn, cumbersome textbooks with new digital textbooks featuring interactive, multi-touch capabilities, video, graphics, and built-in quizzes and reviews to offer immediate feedback.

And summer camps, formerly the providence of bug spray, canoes and sunscreen, are also adopting tech programs to create video games, iPhone or Android apps, websites, digital music, movies, and even robots to enhance their digital campers’ experience and offer relevant activities.

Volunteer groups are also using social media to inspire tweens and teens towards higher goals. The “Do Something” non-profit organization used social media and text messaging to quickly involve one hundred teens in a project to tackle hunger in their communities. The program’s director is aiming to sign up more than three million members by 2014 using mobile communication.

“Teens receive, on average, over 3,300 texts a month, and their phones are part of their social tissue,” said Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn founder and member of Do Something’s board. “I’m convinced this is the best way to move teen philanthropic action to a new level in terms of scale and effectiveness.”

The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Boys and Girls Clubs are
making inroads to incorporate social media, sometimes getting mixed results. Still, these efforts underscore the organizations understand their members’ interest in mobile technology and are taking strides to be part of that discussion and remain relevant.

Technology is becoming more intuitive and human-like, and children are proving increasingly accustomed to that type of interaction and learning. Organizations that have been around for decades, or even a century, are moving to embrace mobile technology not necessarily to replace, but to enhance their programs in order to thrive for years to come.

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