Mention the Boy Scouts of America and many of us envision kids off hiking, camping, fishing, and generally enjoying the outdoors. And, as you’re probably aware, scouts who demonstrate a particular expertise can earn merit badges in areas like astronomy, backpacking, kayaking, and programming. That’s right, this summer the Boy Scouts introduced a new programming merit badge with the support of AutomationDirect, based in Cumming, Ga. It gives scouts an intro to various kinds of software programming and theory for embedded controllers, robotics, PLCs, and ladder logic.

Rick Folea, AutomationDirect senior technical marketer, led a group which included experts from MIT, Lockheed Martin, and Chrysler among others, who developed the guidelines. When asked why scouting is going high tech, he explains the Boy Scout’s mission is preparing youth for life. “Name one thing that you see, touch, taste, or experience today that isn’t influenced by programming in some way,” he says.

Like other merit badges, this one requires general knowledge plus a focus on safety and careers. “The main requirement is to write three programs, in three different languages, for three different industries,” says Folea. “It sounds like a lot, but a companion Web site links to tutorials and examples on applications such as factory automation.” And his company has donated simulation software that lets participants program a PLC and see if it really works. “This makes it easy for kids to learn,” he adds.

Scouts must also gain an understanding about intellectual property, patents, trademarks, and the difference between licensing and freeware. In short, how to respect the rights of others in line with scouting principles such as trustworthiness and honesty, Folea explains. And they have to learn how to be safe on the Internet.

Are kids interested? “When I put this together, I was a little nervous,” admits Folea. “It isn’t camping, hiking, or chopping with an ax. Maybe the demand wouldn’t be there.” In fact, response at July’s National Jamboree in West Virginia was overwhelmingly positive. “Kids would show up at 7:00 a. m. and stand in line for hours just so they could get a chance to do this.“ Reports are that more than 800 participated.

“They learned some fairly simple tasks, but it gave them a feel for how factories are actually programmed. Most importantly, they left realizing this is not out of their reach. It’s something they are capable of and, by the way, it’s really cool and kind of fun. The interest is there for these kids, but they’re not getting the hands-on experiences they need in school,” says Folea.

Many business and political leaders complain that there’s a shortage of qualified workers with technical skills. Folea’s company already supports more than 125 robotics programs at local schools, and has seen many of these students go on to technical studies and jobs. “We understand the importance of getting young minds excited about programming and factory automation, and maybe someday making a career out of it,” says Folea. Today’s scouts could be their future employees.