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Scouting for Engineering Education

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The Boy Scouts of America are growing a new youth educational program called STEM Scouts, open to boys and girls. Guests Davis Fox and Deborah (Debbie) Vasquez talk about the mission of the program, which goes beyond teaching content knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and math. It includes teaching curiosity, teamwork, parental involvement, and other values that align with Scouting programs generally. Davis and Deborah also discuss the program impact on kids in the Austin, Texas, area so far.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Listen to the Engineering Word Of The Day podcast. Also check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.

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Pius Wong  0:00 

It's Labor Day 2017, and this is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast. Did you know that the Boy Scouts have a coed after school program for science, technology, engineering, and math? It's called STEM Scouts. And recently I visited the offices of the Boy Scouts of America here in Austin, Texas, to learn more about what they're doing and why.


Pius Wong  0:32 

I'm Pius Wong. Today, you can hear a talk I had with two guests, Davis Fox a director of STEM Scouts in Texas, and Deborah Vasquez, who is not only a K-12 teacher but also a volunteer for the STEM Scouts program. I started by asking Davis, What is STEM Scouts?


Davis Fox  0:52 

STEM Scouts is a new pilot program for the Boy Scouts of America. We're doing coed STEM education to try and reinforce the skills that youth will need for this next generation.


Pius Wong  1:04 

What is the reason why the Boy Scouts of America started this?


Davis Fox  1:08 

Good question.


Davis Fox  1:09 

For the last hundred years, the Boy Scouts have really prided themselves on their ability to develop workforce and things like that, and times, they are changing. And what we need in America's workforce, what we need in skill sets, is not the same today as it was 100 years ago. And we're using STEM Scouts to hopefully help bridge that gap and reach out. The other thing is, it's a pretty good bait and switch. I mean, really, the values of scouting are to teach citizenship, character development, leadership and fitness. And with the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, we're using the outdoor environment to do that. And with STEM Scouts, we're using an indoor lab environment for that. And it's a good way to get the kids excited, and then help sneak in these other great traits.


Debbie Vasquez  2:01 

And one other thing about that is that STEM Scouts is coed.


Pius Wong  2:04 

And that is our teacher, Deborah Vasquez.


Debbie Vasquez  2:06 

So we let girls come into the program and try to get girls excited, you know, with all the engineering part of that too, because typically girls shy away from that. And so this is a fun way to get them interested in learning and exposed to STEM education.


Pius Wong  2:23 

Yeah, I definitely wanted to ask about that. Because most people are familiar with the Boy Scouts but aren't familiar with STEM Scouts. I guess it was an active decision to recruit both boys and girls. Is this the first time the Boy Scouts have done something like that?


Davis Fox  2:35 

It was an active decision to do this. But we have a few other coed programs in scouting. At the high school level, we have a program called Exploring, which is career education. And then we also have Venturing which is hobbies and high adventure that is coed. This is our first opportunity to work with young women before the high school level, and in STEM scouts we're beginning in third grade.


Pius Wong  3:01 

So Deborah, you're volunteering -- you're actually teaching in this program, right? You're in the thick of it. So for people who don't know what this program is, could you describe what it's like to be in this program as a teacher or as a child?


Debbie Vasquez  3:16 

Sure. So STEM Scouts provides everything for us. It's funded through volunteers, from donors in the corporate world that, you know, fund. For our school, I work at a Title One school, which is a low-income school, so we actually have scholarships for our students, because they probably wouldn't be able to afford a program like this, you know, on their own. So STEM Scouts, like I said, you know, they find our school program and they bring supplies delivered for a module. So we have different modules that we use. So for example, one of our modules this year was Urban Ecology, and the organization ships us a box of all the supplies and the curriculum. And then I -- it's ime as the lab manager to learn the curriculum, and then to teach it to the students.


Pius Wong  4:06 

Okay, so it's is an after-school program, right?


Davis Fox  4:10 

About half of our schools meet right after school, and the other half meet in the evenings. The big thing separating those two are, if we have these wonderful teachers leading the program, or if we have parents of the youth, and so that dictates afternoon or evening most of the time.


Pius Wong  4:24 

Okay, and describe the students who participate. I know that in your school, I guess it's a lower socioeconomic background. Are they all different ages? And coed obviously?


Debbie Vasquez  4:34 

Yeah, so we had an average of 12 to 15 students at any time during the year. The students that I have are boys and girls third through fifth grade, and the great thing about STEM Scouts is that  there's not entry criteria. So the students may have a speech impediment, they may be TAG, they may be learning a second language. A teacher nominates them, and they get accepted. And sometimes the kids will walk up to me in the hallway and say, Are you the STEM Scouts person? I want to be in that. And so then I'm like, okay, you know, we have a spot, you know, let them come in. And so then the kids, it's just really amazing. I've spoken to Davis a lot about how transformative that program is, because where they may be having challenges and maybe not as engaged in the regular classroom throughout the day, when they come to STEM Scouts, they are so engaged, and they are just so motivated to be there and to learn the amazing things that is offered through STEM Scouts.


Pius Wong  5:34 

And what kind of projects are you doing? What is really motivating them in the program?


Debbie Vasquez  5:40 

So one of the things that STEM Scouts does, and that's one of the things that sold me to STEM Scouts, is the character education part. Before we start, we have our pledge, we have their certain words like trustworthy, caring, kind, reverent, all these different words that we focus on. And these students, not only are they learning academic, material, but they're also learning values or life skills. And I think that because they're accepted in our program, the way the modules are set up, they work in teams, so they have like cooperative grouping kinds of teams, and the kids share their responsibilities. And it's their job to make sure that everybody on their team is successful and learning. So we have third graders helping fifth graders, sometimes we have kids that don't speak English, you know, and they're helping, being helped by a younger student, because they do speak English. And it's so different. The way it's set up lends itself to the success. And so it's engaging, it's enticing, it's hands-on, it's manipulative, it's new, and the kids just thrive.


Davis Fox  6:49 

Debbie mentioned that it's hands-on, and these modules that we have last for a month at a time. And we'll take one topic for an hour a week for weeks in a row for that month. And urban ecology is a good example of it. In that one, we had to start growing seeds. And that means you're getting your hands dirty in the soil. And you're working with that. We also did some hydroponics, and so you've grown seeds in soil. Now let's grow it above this water and in this media there to look at it. Let's see what can we do with recycled materials when it comes time for ecology. And those are three of the four weeks on urban ecology. And again, you're working hands-on, you're getting dirty every single week. And it's giving you an opportunity to learn from the last round of stuff you did and see how it's changing as you grow and go forward.


Debbie Vasquez  7:42 

Right. And even during that unit, we talked about vertical farming. And so we talked about sustainable farming and sustainability. Because you know, like with the situation in our world, like our resources and stuff like that, so we even actually -- the kids are like, just like you, what is vertical farming? And so we actually YouTubed, and we saw how different people are experimenting with ways that they can, because of landlock. So cities -- and you know how in some cities, there isn't any fresh vegetables and fruit. So people are growing things vertically because they -- and they're learning how to do that. The kids were so intrigued by that. And they were just like, amazing, like, well, we want to do this too. So we created vertical planters. And they're like, oh, gosh, we got this, you know, this is awesome, because I don't have enough space. I live in an apartment. But my mom could do this. And so they're just learning concepts and learning things that maybe one day the seeds are being planted where they could change the world and create something dynamic like that.


Pius Wong  8:39 

Based on what you all were saying I can definitely see the connections of the traditional image of scouting. You're going outdoors, sometimes you're building stuff. That's my image of scouting from when I was a kid. Who designed these projects? Because it seems like they're really in tune with what's engaging.


Davis Fox  8:57 

We hope they are. That's the goal.


Pius Wong  9:00 

You got your fingers crossed when you're testing this out.


Davis Fox  9:02 



Davis Fox  9:04 

So STEM Scouts is the pilot program for the national organization. We're in 12 markets around the country right now trying to figure things out and see how it goes. We started in Knoxville, Tennessee. And we actually had help with folks from Oak Ridge National Laboratories with our first couple of rounds of this. Now we've got a couple of people helping out with curriculum all over the country, from these 12 different markets. And there's 12 different councils. And for this last year's curriculum, we were fortunate enough in the Austin area to be part of that curriculum writing team. And I like hearing that, even if there's a few typos here and there, I like hearing that it was engaging for the kids, because that's really the end goal. But it's a few professional curriculum writers and a lot of volunteers who are youth-facing that work with the kids and know what's going on.


Pius Wong  9:51 

Okay, so it's still actually being updated all the time.


Davis Fox  9:55 

Absolutely. And because this is a program that's designed -- Debbie's working with elementary school kids, so it's third, fourth and fifth graders, and they're all meeting together. We don't want them doing the exact same round of experiments the next year. So we are working to develop a four-year rotational model, even though they're only going to be there for as long as three years, but a four-year rotational model to do different experiments each year, each go around. And we are getting ready to enter into year three. So we haven't done a full set yet. And that's why we're still growing with it. Year four will be the last brand new thing, year five will be a revision of year one, and we'll cycle from there.


Debbie Vasquez  10:34  

And I think one of the motivational things for the students is because the rigor is so high. And yet they may not be -- for example, some of the kids are second language learners. So they may not understand the vocabulary when we start the module. But by the end of the module, they know all those words, and they're like, Oh my gosh, I know what that means. I know how to say that. And they're so impressed with their own learning that it becomes an intrinsic way for them to just continue. It ignites that passion in them for learning, and knowing how they can challenge difficult things.


Pius Wong  11:10 

So it strikes me that you're an experienced teacher. So you might know how to bring that out of your students. How do you train parents or other people to know how to do that? Or is it the curriculum that kind of motivates that?


Davis Fox  11:23 

That's the $64,000 question in scouting. It scares people a great deal when we're talking about the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, when we say, Hey, we're looking for parent volunteers to help kids learn how to set up tents. I mean, this is something that a lot of people know how to do already. And they're afraid to do it in front of children. To shift that and say, Hey, I'm looking for someone to teach science to children, like, O, my gosh. So that's a really good question. We've worked hard to make sure that the curriculum can be read and interpreted by people with all sorts of different backgrounds. We don't want this to knock anybody out of the running to participate with their family. There is a little bit of a learning curve, though. And the response to that is, you know, what part of this program is, is that we don't want kids to think that the adults always have the answer, where the adults are the only people that know. And I personally feel that if a kid comes to you and asks you a question, and you can say with absolute certainty, this is the answer. You're telling them that they don't have to think critically. And so there's nothing wrong -- and it's in fact encouraged to say, I don't know, or what do you think the answer is? Why do you think that answer is? And helping the families, helping the volunteers to understand that they can say this in front of a kid, and it does not diminish who they are as an adult, is really important. So that's the biggest lesson for them to learn.


Debbie Vasquez  12:41 

And then the modules that STEM Scouts provides has a teacher guide with background information, and so you can watch videos, and you can prepare yourself beforehand to do that. So you know, there's times that I've asked around and I call and reach out to them. I'm like, I'm not so sure about this. Why did you send me this? I'm not really sure about electronics. Oh, bots, and robots? And I'm not sure. But you know what? The kids did know. Because the kids are naturally in it. They're wired that way. And so I was like struggling with Snap Circuits and all these different things that kids are like Miss Vasquez, we got this, we got this week, you know? And so I was like, Oh, my gosh, you guys are so amazing. And so then for them to see that vulnerability in adults, it's -- it helps them to see that we can, we're small, but we can make a difference, too.


Pius Wong  13:28 

That's amazing. And especially because you were saying that you mix a lot of kids who might not normally mix with each other. So I'm wondering, how do you navigate that? They're learning something that's pretty complex, but it's a third grader learning with a fifth grader, boys and girls, maybe they don't like the same things. How do you manage that in an after school program?


Debbie Vasquez  13:47  

It starts with that -- you're setting the tone when the kids walk in. So first of all, when they walk in, they are provided STEM Scouts t-shirts. So every Tuesday they're showing me in the hallways, you know, I've got my scout shirt on. And then secondly, when they come in, they have lab coats. So they wear their little scientific lab coats. And they take that seriously, that changes them. And then we start off, we set the tone, like I said, you know, with vocabulary words. Trustworthy, reverent, cooperative, kindness. And we talk about what does that look like? What does that sound like? So when we're working on that today, what is that going to look like? And how are we going to exemplify that? And so we have a ratee that rates our group and the session and then picks out that one scout that was really showing that, and the kids take so much pride in that. So it's just how you set it up, and then also, the cooperative part of it plays a big deal in that, setting the background. When we're starting a module with vocabulary and terms, the kids understand and know what's going to happen, like they see the big picture, and then we break it down. And there's always someone there to help as well as myself. And if we have volunteers, sometimes we're lucky enough to have parent volunteers that come on in and say, I have 30 extra minutes today, and I'm like, come in and help.


Pius Wong  14:59 

So you're always looking for volunteers.


Debbie Vasquez  15:03 



Pius Wong  15:04 

So I come from the world vaguely of high school education and science education and engineering education. I'm wondering how it's different from the lower levels. And do they do the same kind of hands-on projects and that kind of team building?


Davis Fox  15:19 

Yes. So the STEM Scouts format is the same for every age group. And we've got three different age groups we work with. There's the third through fifth graders, sixth through eighth graders, and then ninth through 12th, that high school group in Central Texas, we have not started any of the high school groups yet. But it would follow the same model with: Let's start with the Scout Oath and Law. And let's talk about what it means to be friendly, courteous and kind. And what shifts most is the depth that you get with the experiments or what you're talking about. Talking about friendly, courteous and kind with a third grader is different than it is with a 16 year-old, and as a 16 year-old now, maybe we're talking about, what does it mean to have scientific ethics? And what does it mean to make sure that you're doing things the right way on a deeper level than just, I didn't slap the person sitting next to me -- but also don't do that.


Davis Fox  16:12 

Same values for different age, okay.


Debbie Vasquez  16:17 

This year was my second year being a STEM Scouts volunteer at on my campus. And so we started last year with third, fourth, and fifth grade. So then the fifth graders graduated, but our third and fourth graders moved up a year, they chose to return to STEM Scouts, they loved it so much the first year that they were coming back. And so then now we have experienced scouts that can help nurture. And so it kind of just continues. So then this year, our fourth graders will be fifth graders, so they become that group that can help support and train, if you will, the other kids coming into the program.


Pius Wong  16:52 

So that works out really well. I'm curious how much overlap is there between Scouts or Boy Scouts and people in STEM scouts, because does participation in this program make people more interested in doing all these other things, or vice versa?


Davis Fox  17:06 

We are really using this to target a different audience. There are a few folks, a few kids that are in both STEM Scouts and Boy Scouts. There are a few folks that are in STEM Scouts and Girl Scouts. And I'm sure, but we haven't tracked that one directly. But really, this is going after a different group of youth. And this is an opportunity for different families to get involved also, so that we can make sure that between these two programs, it's the greatest opportunity to teach those values to the community.


Pius Wong  17:36 

Yeah, on that note, who should be a part of these programs?


Davis Fox  17:40 

As far as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, STEM Scouts in general go, who should take advantage of these opportunities? I think it's a really good thing for all families, you know, but I'm sort of supposed to say that. I believe it in my heart. But I'm also supposed to say that.


Pius Wong  17:53  

But you're not all over the country yet?


Davis Fox  17:55 

No, we are not. We are in a handful of markets. And the best thing to do, go to stemscouts.org. And they've got a map there that shows where we are. And if you keep zooming in where you see a STEM Scouts, it will go not just to the state, but then to the city and all the way down to the schools that we happen to be at. In Central Texas, we are in 20 different schools. So we're not in that many. Central Texas has 400 elementary schools almost. And we're at 20 of them. So we're growing. And we just want to make sure that wherever we pop up, we're giving the best service to make sure that it's this high quality program as what Debbie can deliver.


Debbie Vasquez  18:33 

Yeah, anytime anyone wants to volunteer, you know, my campus is a low socioeconomic campus. And so our parents may not be as educated, even though they are well intended, they may not be well as well educated, or they don't have time because they're working two jobs and three jobs. And so for them, the opportunities for the students -- sometimes they would have no options for after school activities. They go home, and they take care of younger brothers and sisters. And so this affords them the chance to be involved in something that's going to help them for, you know, lifetime skills that they're learning. And then as far as volunteering, some of our parents -- It's really hard to get volunteers because parents really feel like, I don't know how to teach engineering, I am having a hard time with the language, and you know, things like that. So if I can get volunteers to come and help, that kind of helps with that.


Pius Wong  19:28 

That reminded me of a question that I wanted to ask about some of the challenges that you faced in doing this. It sounds like getting volunteers is a challenge. Maybe covering costs or something. What are other challenges that you've seen in developing this?


Davis Fox  19:42 

I think those are the two biggest ones,  the things that pop up most frequently. We are not having a problem getting kids involved. I mean, you mentioned these activities, and they're all over us. So that's a fantastic feeling. Families see value in the program for immediately. And so getting parent buy-in to support the program is present. But getting -- not just buying that their kid can be in the program, but so far that they're willing to spend their time and their energy. That's, of course, the hard part. And then funding the program. We're a nonprofit organization, and finding a way to make sure that this is available to everyone is an ongoing struggle.


Pius Wong  20:21 

It sounds like the kids aren't paying. The families aren't paying necessarily.


Davis Fox  20:26 

Depending on the school, right? I mean,  the sticker price for STEM Scouts is $200 per year. And that's a big upfront cost for a lot of families. But we're talking about 32 weeks worth of program, and we're talking about some pretty high level and high energy activities. And, you know, if you break it down by week, then it's not that much. But that doesn't mean it's not intimidating to folks. And so making sure it's available at all schools, like Debbie's, is an important thing to us, and going out and finding grants or corporate sponsorships or this or that is fantastic. Schools where families can pay, then we asked them to. At schools where families can partially pay, we asked them to. And yeah, about two thirds of our kids right now are on partial or full scholarship to STEM Scouts in Central Texas.


Debbie Vasquez  21:12 

And I know that, you know, my students, they know that they're on scholarships, and so they're so appreciative. And you know that in the spring, Davis invited me to a fundraiser in downtown Austin, and I told my students where I was coming, abd they're like, Miss Vasquez, you need to tell them, you need to tell them, we're so thankful for this opportunity. And they created thank you cards, and I just -- tears just just naturally flowed, because I, they were so proud. And they wanted people to know that they appreciate it, and they're like, one day, I'm going to help, too, and I'm going to do this. I'm going to help, and I'm going to come back and help. And I'm going to be your volunteer, Miss Vasquez, because this program has to continue. And so they can't help maybe monetarily, but the appreciative-ness that they feel, the gratitude that they feel, just, for me, was so heartwarming.


Pius Wong  22:02 

You really see that they're becoming better people, they're learning, but they're also really appreciative of the values.


Debbie Vasquez  22:08 

They're learning the values of a productive citizen in the most authentic and organic ways. Because -- so you know, on my campus, we struggled with getting volunteers. So this year, at our last STEM Scouts meeting we graduated our fifth graders, and they said, No, no, we're not going to say goodbye. And I'm like, why, you know, you're moving on to middle school. And they're like, well, we have a plan. We love STEM Scouts, and we want to come back, and like, you're going to be in middle school, and they're like, well, we're going to come back as your volunteers, Miss Vasquez. We can help you with the kids. And so right there, they're seeing like, you know, what I can give back. I'm young, I don't have much money, but I can give my time. And I can share my knowledge that I've learned through the program, and help the other kids in school. And I was just, that's just amazing, that's living the values. And that's the whole purpose for that, that they're totally sold on STEM and engineering. And they can see a future for themselves where before maybe no one talked to them about that. So that wasn't something that they, you know, that they thought about in their worlds. And after Urban Ecology unit, we went down to our local pond and park, and the students were appalled that there was trash in there or, you know, in their water system. And they were appalled at that. And so then now when they look at things in their world, they see it through a different lens.


Davis Fox  23:31 

If folks want to help out in STEM Scouts, there's a whole host of ways to do that. And if you want to help us coordinate where we should be, I could use your assistance. If you want to be one of the people who's working with the youth and is in front of them on a regular basis, we could use your assistance. If you want to give it to or have a neat STEM-related environment or do a one time presentation, we would love to work with you on that. And I would just be grateful for the opportunity to share with these youth what what folks have to offer in the greater community. And they just go to the website, go to stemscouts.org. And then there's a central Texas link, or you can contact the Capital Area Council Boy Scouts of America directly. And we'd be glad to help you out. Yeah, and for families that are listening, if STEM Scouts is not at your school, but you think it should be there, then absolutely give us a call. The greatest way for us to get into a school is that a parent at that school tells the administration that this matters and helps provide an introduction for us.


Pius Wong  24:33 

Parents are so key, sounds like.


Davis Fox  24:34 



Debbie Vasquez  24:35 

Come visit. You know if you want to see STEM Scouts in action, you want to get inspired, come to Miss Vasquez's Scouts group. I mean, they're just amazing kids. They'll steal your heart.


Pius Wong  24:46 

Sounds like you should give pointers to other volunteers, because you're probably doing something right that other people could learn from.


Debbie Vasquez  24:53 

It's the passion, and it's in, you know, watching the students. They respond, and they raise to the level. They just -- their passion and watching them grow and learn and become not just, you know, learning an academic skill set, but also, I can see them as caring, kind of members of society, and isn't that what we want for our students?


Pius Wong  25:22 

Thanks again to Davis Fox and to Deborah Vasquez of STEM Scouts. Thank you for listening. For links to anything we've talked about today and for transcripts, please visit the show website k12engineering.net. Rate and review the show on iTunes or Stitcher, and pass the show on to your colleagues. Find us on Twitter, Facebook, and all other social media. Finally, you can financially support this show by donating on patreon at www.patreon.com/pioslabs. Thank you to all my supporters on Patreon so far. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio Pios Labs. To learn more about what Pios Labs does, just visit the website pioslabs.com. That's pioslabs.com