A jet of Diet Coke mixed with Mentos candy arced skyward, and assorted youths scattered out of the way, the result of a chemistry demonstration by Scout leader Ken Collins as he worked with members of Scouting troops from around the region for the annual STEM in Scouting event Saturday at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The classic Mentos/soda mixture was one of a number of demonstrations Collins — a leader in Troop 965 in the Level/Webster area and a chemist with the Army’s Chemical Biological Center in the Edgewood Area of APG — and Lee Lefkowitz, a leader with Troop 899 in Fallston, general chemistry instructor at Towson University and a retired Army biochemist, put on for 18 Scouts working on their Chemistry merit badge.
“I spent a lot of time in Aberdeen, so it’s nice to come back today and help out the Scouts,” said Lefkowitz, who had been assigned to APG when he was in the Army.
About 350 Scouts from seven councils in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania participated in the STEM event Saturday, according to Dan Williams, the Harford County STEM coordinator for the Baltimore Area Council.
Fifty-four adults also took part in classes where they could develop their leadership skills in various capacities at different levels of Scouting, or they could learn skills such as CPR or operating an automated external defibrillator, or AED.
The STEM in Scouting event, which started in 2011, is an opportunity for Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts to earn merit badges or Cub Scout NOVA Awards, in a multitude of disciplines related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.
A variety of subject areas were available, such as architecture, aviation, chemistry, robotics, nuclear science and nature, according to a Baltimore Area Council web page on STEM in Scouting.
Williams noted this is the first year girls have been able to participate in the STEM event. The Boy Scouts of America opened its ranks to girls in early 2019, and all-female troops have been established around the U.S. — including some in Harford County — through the Scouts BSA program. The new program gives girls between the ages of 11 to 17 to participate in Scouting all the way up to the highest rank, Eagle Scout.
Cub Scouts opened to girls in mid-2018, and girls in area Cub Scout packs and Scouts BSA troops took part in the STEM event Saturday.
There were three girls among the 18 Scouts studying chemistry with Collins and Lefkowitz under a pavilion on the APG grounds. Many of the youths wore gloves, eye protection and coats as they conducted experiments and worked with laboratory equipment.
Sarah Vaks, 12, of Pikesville, is a member of Troop 97G. She held a small beaker filled with a mix of vinegar and Alka-Seltzer tablets with a pink balloon attached to the top of the beaker.
The chemical reaction of Alka-Seltzer combined with vinegar caused the balloon to inflate. Sarah removed the balloon from the beaker and quickly tied it off as her brother, 11-year-old Moshe, and other Scouts watched.
She and other Scouts bounced the inflated balloon around, noting it would not float at all, as it was filled with carbon dioxide generated by the chemical reaction, making it heavier than air.
“It was a lot of fun,” Sarah said of the STEM day. The eighth-grader joined Scouts BSA in February and said she can learn a number of skills in the program, such as woodworking and First Aid.
Her brother, who is a member of Scout Troop 611 and in the seventh grade, also said he enjoyed the event.
“It’s just so much fun, all the STEM [learning],” Moshe said.
Lefkowitz used a “distillation apparatus” to demonstrate how pure water can be separated from salt water using heat to create steam, and then the pure water could be collected at the end of a condenser pipe. The apparatus, which is typically used by college chemistry students, is a way to show how liquids can be separated at different boiling points ― Lefkowitz told the Scouts such methods are used to refine gasoline or purify alcohol in a still.
Landon Chubbuck, 11 and a member of Troop 414 in Pasadena in Anne Arundel County, used a plastic cup to collect drops of water as they came out of the condenser.
The sixth grader has not studied chemistry yet, but he said he can take the skills he learned Saturday back to school. Landon said he liked performing experiments.
“It was definitely exploding the Coke bottle,” he said when asked his favorite aspect of the day.
Lefkowitz said chemistry is a key science for those who want to work in a STEM field. He said the Scouts he worked with, many of whom are middle schoolers, get “a great start, academically.”
“Completing this [merit badge] really encourages them to take chemistry in high school, which sets them up for success in a STEM field later,” he said.
Collins and Lefkowitz said chemistry usually has the best attendance during the annual STEM event, but it was beat out by aviation this year.
Benjamin Larned, 13, of Baltimore City, completed all requirements for the aviation merit badge Saturday. He and his fellow Scouts checked out military aircraft such as Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters housed at the Edgewood Area of APG.
Benjamin, a member of Troop 577, said the Scouts could sit in the helicopter cockpits, joking that they could operate controls “that wouldn’t cause damage.” He noted the Chinook can “lift its own weight” by hoisting another Chinook.
Benjamin said he does not currently plan on a career in aviation, but a merit badge in the subject struck his interest.
“It sounded like an interesting merit badge, from what I’d heard ... it’s an experience I never had before,” he said.
His mother, Courtney Larned, described STEM in Scouting as “an opportunity to experience things that you don’t get from school day to day.”
Lachlan Gemmill-Edwards, 12, of Troop 90 in York County, Pennsylvania, earned a merit badge in architecture. He learned about professional techniques such as measuring the floor of a room, the different styles of architecture and the eras of architecture like Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and modern.
Lachlan said he wants to own his own design company and has been interested in home building and design since he was 8 or 9 years old and visited a friend whose family lives in a newly built house. The friend showed Lachlan documents that indicated the type of house the friend’s family lives in, and Lachlan’s interest in types of houses grew from there.
“Bubble maps are something that I really like,” he said, recalling what he learned Saturday about how to make a diagram of a plan for a structure, starting with one room as the first “bubble,” and then each room, with its own bubble, branches out from the original bubble.
Scouts BSA vs. Girl Scouts
Irma Henz, 10, who also lives in York County, is a Cub Scout at the rank of Webelos. She earned a NOVA achievement in the field of “fearful symmetry," in which people’s perceptions do not always match the reality in front of them.
She noted some people experience “symmetry for their face perceptions,” meaning a person could mistake someone they are meeting for someone else they know, based on their perception of the latter’s face.
“It can play tricks on your mind sometimes,” Irma said, describing fearful symmetry.
Irma said she had been in Girl Scouts before joining her local Cub Scout pack in 2018 at age 8. She recalled the Girl Scouts she was with would “mostly talk and sell cookies.”
“But, in Boy Scouts, I get to sell popcorn and go on camping trips,” Irma said.