In 1910, when the Boy Scouts of America was founded, the organization focused on teaching skills to young men that valued self-reliance, patriotism, courage and outdoor adventure. Two years later, the Girl Scouts was founded with a similar, albeit more genteel, focus on nature, crafts and outdoor skills.

But as childhoods and family dynamics have evolved over the last century, so too has the focus of scouting and the skills offered and required for both boys and girls. The biggest difference in both organizations is a move away from some of the traditional skills to make room for new activities such as game design, public speaking and social media.

For the Boy Scouts, the evolution has been subtle. Many of the same rugged outdoor skills — archery, backpacking and horsemanship — are still offered as merit badges alongside the newer options such as robotics, programming and disability awareness. Today, young boys can choose from around 130 merit badges to earn, compared to just 57 when the organization was first launched. But the biggest difference lies in activities that boys must complete to earn these badges.

For example, the original requirements for a boy to earn the camping badge were pretty straightforward: He had to camp for at least 50 nights, pitch a tent on his own, build a fire without matches, choose a campsite, and construct a raft. Today, there are 10 paragraph-long requirements for completing the camping badge — only one of which actually requires the scout to go outside. The rest involve planning, preparation and discussing potential safety hazards with his counselor. In other words, more emphasis is placed on learning how to complete a skill than in actually doing it.

The evolution of Girl Scout badges has been more dramatic. In 2012, in celebration of the organization's 100th anniversary, new badges and skill pathways were launched that moved the group away from outdoor skills such as tent-pitching and campfire-building and toward a future of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities in the hopes of staying relevant to today's young girls.

The Girl Scout's redesign did away with some of the traditional badges that focused on beauty and fashion and relegated others — like painting and simple meal preparation — to “legacy” status. In their place came new skills such as digital filmmaking, website design, eating local, and social innovation. Badges for outdoor activities and skills are still there for things like camping, hiking and kayaking, but the role of the outdoors was definitely diminished with the reorganization.

In the end, the only constant is change. So it's no surprise that scouting organizations have changed their programs to stay relevant to today's youth. It would be a shame if outdoor skills disappeared from the roster altogether, but for the time being, it makes sense to include knot tying along with robotics so that kids can learn practical skills useful both now and in the future.

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Scouting 2.0: The evolution of merit badges
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