Power Tools Are For Girls

A new merit badge system for design education


Sparks rose and fell in an arc to the sound of the metallic popping and buzzing of the welder. Laila was in position leaning over the table, her welding helmet down, her body covered head to toe in protective gear. She moved the welding gun in a bob-and-weave motion like sewing, completing the fillet weld with ease. “Clear,” she declared when finished. The four girls around her lowered their masks, Laila raised her helmet to reveal a huge smile and her pigtail braids. “I did it!” she said.

A few weeks later, after completing two structural welding projects, Laila, a 5th grader, would earn her Welding badge from the Camp H building program. She also earned badges in Carpentry, Masonry, and Fix-It (Automotive and Household Repair). That day, not just Laila, but 15 of her fellow campers stood in front of their parents and siblings, and one-by-one were handed their certificate and badges. They beamed from ear to ear, their eyes wide, fidgeting and jumping with excitement as they each said a few words. Laila spoke last: “I feel really proud, like I can show people these awesome things I can do. And, not to be rude, but most people don’t know how to weld, but I can. And I’m not done yet. I want to earn my Leadership badge next because I like to take charge and make things happen.”

Laila and about 120 other girls her age have participated in Camp H, a Berkeley-based design and building camp for girls ages 9–13, which I founded and run under my nonprofit, Project H Design. Some of my camper girls have been with me for multiple years, earning all 11 badges in our “Fearless Builder Girl” certification program. Aside from the courage and confidence that these skills spark in pre-teen girls, the badges they earn make their skillset a visual point of pride. Many campers wear their badges on a strip of Velcro on their Camp H messenger bag as they go through their school days or to sleepovers with friends. They walk into their 5th grade math class, or onto the soccer field, wearing something that screams “I’m a 10-year-old girl and I know how to weld, what can’t I do?”

Camp H adopted the badge system about a year ago, after recognizing that our returning campers should have a continuous way of tracking their growing tool box of skills. They wanted to visually see the things they knew how to do, and to show them off a bit.

This is a powerful statement for young people, and badges are a useful system that is one part incentive, one part reward, and one part portfolio to display skills that are not easily demonstrated through a report card or grade.

There are two big opportunities for badges to change the trajectory of learning for young people. First, for creative, 21st century learning that is not easily measured by a test or grade, badges are a clear way to assign value to skills. Young people can learn skills in focused portions, then string skills together in an order they dictate. Because the learning is personalized and acknowledged visibly, it is more meaningful and more easily connected to higher learning or career paths. Secondly, earning badges creates bite-size incremental successes to engage and continually motivate students who have not had equal access to this type of learning.

Awarding badges for achievement is hardly a new concept. The military has been doing so for centuries; football teams display their stickers proudly on helmets, and the list goes on. For most people, the first, longest-standing, and largest badge-giving association that comes to mind is the Scouts of America, both for boys and girls. I was a Girl Scout for a brief stint in elementary school, but never made it past the Brownies, primarily because soccer began to take precedent. While both organizations award badges to young scouts, there is a distinct difference in both content and intent of badges awarded to boys versus girls.

In 2013 alone, 2.6 million boys were official Boy Scouts members, and 2.1 million total merit badges were awarded by the organization. Interestingly, the third most awarded badge was for Environmental Science; the top five also include First Aid, Swimming, Citizenship in the World, and Citizenship in the Nation (1). Founded in 1910, Boy Scouts of America currently offers merit badges in 130 skills, and is overt in the direct connection of these skills to “trades, business, and future careers.” (2) A quick perusal of the list is enough to excite anyone: badges can be earned by scouts of any age in Inventing, Architecture, Entrepreneurship, Engineering, Fingerprinting, Bugling, and so much more. Badges continue to be added each year, strategically aligned with both demand and career paths. Amongst the newly added and upcoming badges, the organization lists Digital Technology, Game Design, and Sustainability. Welding was added in 2012, its requirements clearly stated in the badge pamphlet along with recommended reading and national resources for further information. All this is to say that the Boy Scouts are strategic, career-focused, robust in their badge offerings, and have been since their inception.

The Girl Scouts was founded in 1912, soon after the Boy Scouts, and boasts similar numbers: 2.3 million current members. For the Girl Scouts, there is still a plethora of interesting subjects, though they are presented with a different intent, explicit or implicit, and much can be inferred from the badges that are NOT included in the offering. As a former Brownie, I do remember the pride of earning my badges and the ceremonial rite of passage that came along with it. I do not, however, remember the specific badges I earned or that they were ever connected to “future careers.” Rather, they were a sort of pat on the back that came with hugs from parents and often a celebratory cake.

The Girl Scout “insignia and award” system, for one, is much harder to navigate, and seems “fluffier,” for lack of a more technical term. Girls can only earn the insignia appropriate or assigned to their Scout level (i.e. Brownies, etc), and they fall into categories such as Showing You Belong, A World Of Girls: It’s Your Story, Tell It!, and Cookie Business Badges. Within these categories and others, insignia are awarded for some skills that are empowering and focused (i.e. Public Speaker, Musician, Digital Photographer, Gardener, or Citizen), and others that seem superfluous and even silly (i.e. Social Butterfly, Netiquette, Eating for Beauty, and Dinner Party). I was happy to see that there are insignia for Woodworker, Product Designer, Entrepreneur, but also irate knowing that a 10-year-old Boy Scout could earn a Welding badge, but no Girl Scout at any age could earn the same. On the Girl Scout side, there is no insignia for many of the more career-focused Boy Scout badges. In fact, some of the most career-focused Girl Scout insignia, including Architecture, Math Maps and More, Graphic Communications, and Do-It-Yourself, have been discontinued. When put in the context of the organizational mission, insignia seem to be more about life skills and leadership, rather than career pathways or hard skills (all of which are important, though it is curious that there is a lack of language around career preparation for the Girl Scouts).

To be fair, much of this is historical, and the Girl Scouts are making efforts to refresh and update their insignia offerings to include more STEM and 21st century skills. Girls can earn insignia under the National Leadership Journeys and National Proficiency Badges program, including the Naturalist, Digital Art, Science and Technology, Innovation, and Financial Literacy badge categories. There is an effort being made, though it still feels relatively small, nascent, and hard to navigate.

A few months ago, I received an email from a local Girl Scout troop leader. She asked if she could bring her 24 girls to our Camp H space so that her young scouts could learn how to weld. “They can’t earn a badge in welding, but they are all asking to do more building and making, which is why I emailed you,” she wrote. So my critique is not of what the Girl Scouts as an organization lacks, but rather of the huge opportunity it has to fulfill a undeniable demand. Girl Scout insignia are already worn with pride across sashes and vests by young girls.

Why not make the system clearer, more open, more easily accessible for a girl of any age to earn a badge in welding or programming (neither currently offered), and to connect those skills to others? The Boy Scouts structure their badge system this way; why the soft pink cloud around the Girl Scouts?

With 21st century skills becoming more and more prevalent and integrated in classrooms and enrichment programs, a number of large educational endeavors are launching merit badge programs as well. The Khan Academy, well-known for its short-format instructional videos on anything from standards-aligned math to world history and computing, has a tiered badge-and-point system that rewards students for achievement. The Persistence badge is awarded when a student “answer[s] a problem correctly after having some trouble with a few problems and sticking with the skill,” and the Tinkerer badge is earned by “paus[ing] a tutorial and tinker[ing] with the code.” Badges can be earned not only for personal success, but for collaboration, inquiry, and grit.

ClassBadges is an open-platform system for teachers to integrate badge awards for students in their classroom, while the MacArthur Foundation-funded Open Badges program by Mozilla is a way for young people to create an online “backpack” — a portfolio that showcases their digital badges, along with supplementary media such as photos or videos.

It also seems worth mentioning here, that both digital and analog badges are useful, but if I were my 10-year-old self, I would want the physical badge to rock on my backpack. For skills learned in a virtual space, a virtual badge makes sense, but nothing seems to trump the stitched-on or Velcro badge that wears as you get older, whose threads remind you of your own growth an ability.

What does all this mean for my Camp H girls? For your daughter or son? For your 5th grade students? The power of badges is simple and human: earning and displaying the things we learn makes us both proud of what we’ve done and excited to keep discovering what else we can do. And the potential for badges within a creative endeavor like design is vast: design is a great equalizer, and badges allow us to carve our own path. Badges are a way to “choose your own adventure.” For young people whose demographics or parents’ education levels or geography or socioemotional challenges make linear learning tough, the self-direction and incremental reward of badges is a motivating pathway that leads to life-long learning.

More than anything, a physical badge worn visibly, affords a young person with a sense of confidence and agency. “This is what I know how to do,” they can say to the world. I know this to be true because my camp girls say it better than I ever could. And, as is the case with Camp H, badges are earned collectively, through collaboration: “we learn together, and we earn together,” we say. At Camp H, every girl earns her badges because of her own grit, helped along by the support of her campmates.

A few weeks ago, I hosted a Welding and Wine workshop for adult women, in which four of my Camp H girls led the welding instruction. These ten-year-old girls explained the science of how a weld works “like a lightning bolt,” “using an electrical current,” and “fuses the work metal together… not like soldering or a glue gun.” In this moment of cross-generational sisterhood, my young camper girls were leaders and the bearers of knowledge. Teah, an alumna camper who has earned 8 of her 11 skill badges, told me she was excited to earn her 9th badge, Leadership, for her instructional role at the adult workshop. She said how toting her badge-clad Camp H messenger bag to school each day makes her feel.

With one sassy hand on her hip, she told me, “I use it every day. My friends and teachers ask me about the badges and I tell them, ‘Those are all the awesome things I know how to do.’”