orientation, and a safety lecture. After the safety lecture,
each group rotates through four labs: fun, fire, kitchen,
and environmental. After everyone enjoys lunch and
dessert on us, the boys interview a few chemists and—
voila! — they have earned their merit badge.
We tell the Scouts that the safety talk is the most boring, but most important, part of the day. An undergraduate ACS student gives a short talk explaining safety
equipment, MSDS sheets, the proper storage, disposal,
and handling of chemicals, government agencies, and
the classical divisions of chemistry. This half-hour briefing fulfils many of the badge’s requirements and prepares the Scouts for the lab environment.
The kitchen lab includes many more required elements of the merit
badge — chemistry of starches and sugars in onions (taste-test of
raw, browned, and caramelized onions), separation of mixtures,
the importance of concentration (why you don’t brush your teeth
with household bleach), and chemical versus physical change. One
favorite additional demonstration includes a discussion of stomach
pH using hydrochloric acid (HCl) and milk of magnesia (Mg(OH) 2,
magnesium hydroxide): we add a few drops of the universal indicator to a solution of HCl, which turns dark red, showing that the
stomach is very acidic. Milk of magnesia is then added and, as the
solution turns basic, it goes through the entire color range of the
universal indicator. This experiment is a dramatic demonstration
of the pH range of “stomach neutralization.” Another fun addition
to the kitchen lab is “rubber eggs.” We soak eggs in vinegar (acetic
acid) overnight, allowing the egg shells, which are made of calcium
carbonate, to react with acetic acid to break down and dissolve
the shell. This chemical change results in a rubbery egg that can
The environmental lab consists primarily of a lecture about environmental chemistry, types of chemical pollution, and the role of
government agencies. The Scouts see the effects of acid rain firsthand through a demonstration of the interaction of HCl with concrete. Without a proper background in chemistry, the Scouts can
fulfill the requirements covered in this lab by using Internet and
book sources, but are unlikely to understand all they are reading.
A Scout Leader’s Perspective
In 2003 my son (stepson) Blake moved up from Webelos to Boy Scouts.
I subsequently became a Scout leader and merit badge counselor. I
noticed how difficult it was for Scouts to complete some merit badges
(such as Chemistry, Oceanography, and Law) and that most of these
merit badges were being taught in a classroom or at summer camp.
Imagining these encounters, all I could picture was a Scout in uniform
listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher saying “WAWAWAWA” — and the
Scout not getting anything positive. I realized that our community could
support these and other merit badges, thereby introducing Scouts to
colleges and businesses. I contacted the chemistry department at ODU
to see if they could help us with the Chemistry merit badge, and thus a
In addition to the Scouts earning their Chemistry merit badge, they
also come away with a positive impact from the host facility. The boys
see the college students in a casual learning environment, and learning
becomes easy and non-threatening. The students welcome questions,
and the boys oblige with much curiosity. This opens many doors to
Scouts who were not particularly interested in chemistry or college, and
allows them to gain a new perspective for their future.
Since working with the ODU ACS Club, I have had numerous parents
comment on what a great event it is and the positive impact it has
had on their boys. Several have commented that their Scouts are now
actively thinking about going to college, or taking chemistry classes in
high school. I may not know the long-term impact of this program, but I
do know that I have helped expose the Scouts to a world beyond television and video games.
Joe Colby, Committee Chair and Merit Badge Counselor, Troop 256.
Periodic table of cupcakes.
Onion chemistry (starches to sugars)— raw onion, browned onion, and