LINN, Mo. -- Nearly 400 scouts gathered Saturday for Merit Badge University.
Linn Troop 17, for the 21st year of the event, hosted 391 scouts at State Technical College of Missouri.
They not only came from all across Missouri, as scouts traveled to the event from Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas and Texas, according to event coordinator Debbie Backes, who is a committee chair for Troop 17.
Many camped out at the Linn Lions Club Fairgrounds, across the highway from the campus.
The all-day event offered 40 disciplines for merit badges, including American Culture; Animal Science; Animation; Archery; Architecture; Automotive Maintenance; Aviation; Chemistry; Chess; Citizenship in the Community; Citizenship in the World; Communication; Cooking; Crime Prevention; Disabilities Awareness; Dog Care; Drafting; Emergency Preparedness; Engineering; First Aid; Genealogy; Geology; Home Repairs; Inventing; Metalwork; Mining in Society; Personal Fitness; Personal Management; Photography; Robotics; Search and Rescue; Sustainability; Welding; and others.
Comparatively speaking, when the event began two decades ago, it was small -- serving only about 100 scouts, Backes said. It has hosted more than 500 at times, she added.
The pandemic caused the numbers to drop a little, but organizers are pleased with the turnout, Backes said.
"It has always been intended as a place where kids can come in and earn merit badges," she said. "We just offer a chance for kids who can't get some of these merit badges to get them."
Not all the scouts involved have opportunities to earn badges in special fields, such as robotics, photography, welding or others, she continued.
And, the event offers badges scouts seeking Eagle honors are required to obtain.
"I was just talking to the aviation (instructor) and he said he once had a kid who took the aviation badge, and he made it his career," Backes said.
Scouts packed rooms in the college's information technology center. In one room, they split into teams and built Lego robots. Ray Johnson, 11, of the Greater St. Louis Area Council and Mason Baumgartner, 12, of Fulton, scrambled to build a Lego robot late Saturday afternoon. Baumgartner studied the instructions and announced to a nearby instructor he thought there was a piece missing.
A volunteer instructor, Caroline Ma, 17, of Columbia, stood alongside the boys and offered encouragement. She and other members of Army Ants, a high school robotics competition team from Columbia, brought the robots to the event to give the scouts hands-on experience. The team is associated with FIRST, a robotics community that prepares young people for the future through a suite of team-based robotics programs, according to https://www.firstinspires.org.
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are obviously very important to teenagers who wish to enter careers in robotics, Ma said.
"We kind of just wanted to spread STEM. I think the next closest FIRST team is in Wentzville," she said. "We're kind of going around, trying to inspire kids to go more into engineering. And, of course, we want to help them earn their merit badges."
Johnson said his father is a computer coder.
"I like coding," he said.
The robotics course did not have any pre-requisites. However, many of Saturday's merit badge courses did.
For instance, the Emergency Preparedness Merit Badge required scouts to have completed the First Aid Merit Badge, created a family plan, and bring that plan to the university. Scouts were also required to learn the names of their community's emergency management director, sheriff or police chief and emergency medical services director. The class required them to bring personal emergency packs, a suitcase or waterproof box used as a family kit and a photo showing what is inside them.
Scouts seeking the welding badge Saturday were required to wear a uniform for the opening ceremony, but bring jeans and enclosed shoes to wear during the class. No shorts or open-toed shoes were allowed.
Scouts seeking the aviation badge were required to bring in a signed Guide to Safe Scouting Activity consent and approval from parents, so they could fly in a single-engine airplane. They also had to fill out a workbook during the day.
Those scouts had a full day, went through pre-flight checklists for pilots and planes, made toy planes out of Styrofoam plates and took brief flights in a Cessna.
Holly Kliethermes of Linn watched as her 11-year-old son, Elijah, and two other scouts (all passengers) took off in the Cessna.
One reason Elijah took instruction for the Aviation badge was the family is preparing to go on a vacation and he has some anxiety about flying.
"I wanted him to get used to the pressures and stuff, and use this as an opportunity," Kliethermes said. "I wanted him to know what his first flight is going to be like in a few weeks."
Elijah had been very nervous about the aviation training over the past few weeks, she said.
"Not two minutes before his flight ended," she said, "he texted me, 'This is really fun.'"