Exploring the world of digital making with Scouts

By Tom Hadfield. Posted

Scouts work towards achieving the Digital Maker badge

A set of projects supports young people in connecting digital making with outdoor pursuits

When you think of Scouts, what comes to mind? For most people, the word conjures images of forests and tents, fires built from sticks and kindling, troops of young people walking, climbing, and rowing through the great outdoors while singing, bonding as a group, and going on adventures great and small.

But what if there were a way to combine this spirit of adventure, love of learning new skills, and group camaraderie with the world of technology, to give young people involved in Scouts the confidence and ability to read computer code as well as map coordinates, and the ability to build robotic devices as well as campfires?

The Digital Maker Staged Activity badge does just that. Developed in partnership with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the badge has been awarded to almost 50,000 young people in the two years since its inception.

Developing digital making skills

Scouts working towards the Digital Maker badge can learn how to solve problems, build resilience, help their communities, and express themselves. At the same time, they learn computing skills that will serve them well in their adult lives and future careers. In an increasingly technology-driven society, the core principles that have guided the UK Scouts movement since its inception in 1908 are helping Scouts to adapt quickly to a new world, where the ability to read and write computer programs is as valuable as any other form of literacy.

Sarah Kerry, Corporate Partnerships Account Manager at Scouts, said, “These activities help young people and the adult volunteers who support them develop real-world skills that are essential in the current job market. Our partnership has been going for a couple of years now and it’s getting better and better as we learn more about each other and develop the activities we undertake together. The bottom line is that we know there is a real desire for digital making in our young people.”

The Digital Maker Staged Activity badge

The Digital Maker badge is divided into five stages and is designed to support a Scout as they make their journey from a complete beginner with no experience of using programming languages, into a coder who can design and prototype a working product that can benefit their community or society as a whole.

  • Stage 1 is designed for digital making beginners and is often undertaken by young people involved in Cubs and Beavers (ages 6–10). It gently introduces computational thinking concepts and gives them hands-on experience of block-based programming languages such as Scratch.

  • Stages 2 and 3 introduce coding languages such as Python and HTML and CSS, and physical computing using the Raspberry Pi and BBC micro:bit. Projects include creating music and games, websites, and video presentations, as well as activities that use technology to solve outdoor tasks, such as designing a map or identifying species of plant life. Stages 2 and 3 tend to be taken by older Scouts (aged 10–14) and intermediate coders.

  • Stages 4 and 5 feature fewer guided projects and are designed to allow Scouts who have developed their digital making skills during the badge to show off their creativity and problem-solving by designing, building, and evaluating their own projects.

It is possible to earn the Digital Maker badge by doing any activity that fulfils the requirements, but to help Scouts achieve their badges, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has created a set of free resources that teach key concepts and digital skills. Scouts volunteers are being supported to embrace digital making themselves through Scouts-themed projects, in activities such as Compass Coding and micro:bit Campfire Music. Scout leaders are encouraged to work with their young people to adapt the recommended projects to suit their needs, and as the volunteers’ confidence with digital making increases, so does the ability to customise and modify the resources. 

There are several offline activities that can be done without using any technology at all — this is especially important for Scout groups with limited access to equipment or in areas of socio-economic deprivation — and many of the online activities can be adapted to run unplugged. This customisation has proven popular during the coronavirus pandemic, as all face-to-face Scout group meetings have been put on hold.

Eleven-year-old Amelia, from Sutton Coldfield, said, “Having a go at the Digital Maker badge during lockdown gave me the chance to learn some new skills and practise some of the ones I already have. It was a bit of a challenge but that’s great. If it was easy everyone would do it, and it’s given me some great skills that will be helpful in later life.”

Supporting volunteers with digital making

The world of computer programming can seem daunting to some volunteer Scout leaders, and this can present a barrier to young people in undertaking the Digital Maker badge. The best solution to this — which is also the simplest — is for volunteers to try out a beginner Scratch project. Nine times out of ten, this leads to a eureka moment when the volunteer realises that digital making isn’t as intimidating as it first appears and that creating things with technology is a lot of fun.

In addition to developing resources, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has also run face-to-face Scout leader training sessions across the UK. In 2019, 150 Scout leaders in Belfast, Dundee, Newport, Sheffield, Birmingham, and Surrey attended training days on which they got an overview of the Digital Maker badge and advice on how to lead sessions with their Scout group. They also got hands-on experience with physical computing components — this was a new experience for many. The coronavirus pandemic has put face-to-face Scout leader training sessions on hold for the time being, but there are plans underway to reinstate them in some form in the future.

A hackathon for social good

One of the biggest in-person events was a Social Action Hackathon held in November 2019 at the Scout Association’s national headquarters at Gilwell Park in Epping. At the event, two Scout groups from Sheffield and London came together to practise their digital making skills, along with a team of educators from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. 

The hackathon directly supported Scout’s A Million Hands project, whereby Scouts engage with UK-based charities to ‘leave the world a little better than they found it’. Scouts were tasked with designing and prototyping a technological solution that might benefit one of these charities, or the people and communities that they support. By completing the hackathon, the young people would also be fulfilling the fifth and most complex stage of the Digital Maker Staged Activity badge.

The groups were previously unknown to each other and included young people of mixed age and ability; the majority were complete beginners. Over the two days, the young people developed a host of skills alongside coding and robotics, such as project management and agile development techniques. As their final task, the young people had to present their work to a panel of experts, which was a great opportunity for them to develop communication skills and confidence.

Projects developed by the attendees included a drone to help the World Wildlife Fund combat climate change using temperature sensors; a self-esteem robot that displayed positive messages to passersby for the mental health charity Mind; and a digital diary for people with autism.

Considering that some attendees had never heard of digital making before the event, their ability to quickly take up new concepts was even greater than anticipated.

Elyas, group leader of seventh Newham Scouts, said, “This is one of the best things we’ve done as a group. I’m so impressed by the teams facilitating this. I thought one or two Scouts might drop out, but they’ve all really enjoyed it. I was going to leave them to it, but I’ve been so inspired I’ve stuck around all weekend too.”

The dedication on the part of young Scouts to embrace digital making skills highlights a key point: once you demonstrate to a young person that digital making can have a real-world impact on their lives, inspire their imagination, and give them a few basic tools to achieve their vision using technology, the possibilities are endless.

For more information on the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s partnership with Scouts and the Digital Maker Staged Activity badge, contact scouts@raspberrypi.org

Activities to try out

All of the Digital Maker Staged Activity badge resources are available and are free for anyone to use; you don’t need to be a Scout leader or a young person who is involved in Scouts.

The Great Indoors initiative from Scouts features several Raspberry Pi activities that can be done at home. Since the lockdown, the initiative has received over 1 million page views! Visit rpf.io/scouts-great-indoors.


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