Nova Award Unit Guide: How to Include STEM in Your Unit

What is STEM?


STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.


Why should we care about STEM in our unit?


There really are several good reasons.

  1. Youth really like STEM. Done right, STEM is a great deal of fun. Youth get to build things, try them out, and see them work. They get to experiment and see STEM in action.
  2. Parents really like STEM. Parents want their children to have fun in youth activities and they want those activities to help build character, but they also want their children to learn and explore areas and skills that will help them find and build a successful career. Parents want their children to know about STEM.
  3. STEM can bring you new leaders. You have adults in your unit and your community who are involved in STEM. These certainly include scientists and engineers, but also medical professionals, computer experts, technicians, skilled tradespeople, agricultural experts, wildlife experts, firefighters, and police officers, among others. And don’t forget those who enjoy hobbies such as cooking, woodcarving, or even watching sporting events. By and large, people involved in STEM enjoy teaching about and discussing their fields. Your unit’s STEM program will give you the chance to find and involve these new leaders.
  4. STEM gives you new program options for your meetings. A STEM-related program can give you a program theme that your youth and adults haven’t seen before.
  5. STEM provides expanded activities and recognition for interested youth. Youth who develop an interest in STEM can earn Nova and Supernova awards. The requirements are age relevant but are designed to stretch the youth and motivate them to learn and display new skills and to do their own research and development.

Is STEM new in the Boy Scouts of America?


Actually, no. Activities that we now call STEM have been part of Scouting from the very beginning. Scouts have always done STEM; it just hasn’t been called that. Compass reading, measuring, judging, fitness, conservation, nature, signaling, firebuilding, cooking, and other Scout skills have deep STEM involvement. STEM is just a repackaging and expansion of what we have always done.


Do we have to include STEM in our program? Is it mandatory?


The STEM Nova and Supernova awards are an optional, supplemental part of the Scouting program. They give you something special to offer those youth who are interested and who can benefit.

But as mentioned earlier, STEM itself is part of the Scouting program and always has been, and so your youth will be doing STEM. Why not take advantage of the nationwide interest in STEM and get the additional interest and benefit by specifically pointing out the STEM that your youth are doing?


Isn’t STEM only for nerds and not for real people?


Certainly some people involved in STEM are nerds. And we are rather proud of it! However, knowledge of STEM and comfort with STEM are essential for everybody.

STEM is a part of the outdoor experience in Scouting. Studying STEM can answer such questions as: How do sails work to propel a sailboat? What do fish like to eat so I can use the most effective bait? STEM skills can be a part of all youths’ outdoor experience.

It’s not just about the STEM skills; it’s also about the STEM methods. Those involve developing an idea, trying it out with experiments, seeing what works, and improving on the process. It means being willing to try something and fail and then learning from the experience.

Not every youth who is introduced to camping through Scouting becomes a forest ranger or hiking guide. In the same way, not every Scout who enjoys STEM in Scouting will become a scientist, technologist, engineer, or mathematician. But if our goal is to enhance the citizenship, character, and fitness of every youth, then STEM is a key part of the future for those youth.


Tell me more about the Nova and the Supernova awards.


The most common Nova awards involve a group of requirements and activities in one of the STEM areas. The youth completes the requirements and earns the Nova award. Completing the initial Nova award results in the Scout earning a patch for wear on the uniform, while each subsequent award earns the Scout a pin to be worn on the patch. Additionally, Nova awards are being developed continually, with requirements being posted on the BSA website. Occasionally, special Nova awards will be created for participation in certain activities, such as the STEM exhibit at the national Scout jamboree or the STEM Trek at Philmont Scout Ranch.

Supernova awards require more in-depth and complex involvement. Earning a Supernova award involves earning several Nova awards plus completing other requirements. An adult mentor will guide and support the youth working on the Supernova award requirements.

The earning of Nova awards should be reported to the local council by the youth’s unit on an advancement report, and the patches and pins can be purchased at a Scout shop. Supernova award applications are sent to the council for approval. After approval, the medals can be purchased at a Scout shop.


What qualifications do Nova counselors need?


Adults age 21 and older with little to some knowledge of STEM topics can be Nova counselors. Counselors should be comfortable with high school math and science but not necessarily have a degree in or work in a STEM-related field or be an expert in the topic. It’s enough to have an interest in STEM and to be willing to look into the topics so that they can guide the youth. For instance, if you have ever gone fishing, dug a hole, or ridden a bike, you understand simple machines.


What qualifications do Supernova mentors need?


It depends upon the program level. The most important qualifications are the ability to work with youth at that level and an interest in helping youth with STEM.

Supernova mentors for Cub Scouts and Webelos Scouts must be an adults, age 21 and older, with some STEM knowledge and interest. Boy Scout Supernova mentors require significant expertise such as being a hobbyist, having a bachelor’s degree in a STEM topic, or having work experience in a STEM-related field like mechanics, welding, etc. Supernova mentors for Venturers require in-depth expertise as Venturers can become quite deeply involved in STEM topics and can do actual innovative research in some cases. Ideally, Supernova mentors for Venturers should be adults with in-depth knowledge of STEM and with experience in teaching, guiding, and mentoring young people. At the Einstein Supernova level, the topic may require an expert in a specific field. These adults maybe a parent if they are working with more their own youth.


We don’t know anything about STEM. How can we run a program?


You probably have some people in your unit who work in or have knowledge about a STEM field. But even if you don’t, there are STEM programs in the unit guides that you can use. Every part is spelled out so you can run a multiweek program that will end up with every youth having the opportunity to earn a Nova award. Everything is there. Particularly at the Cub Scout level, we believe that with the information in these guides, any parent can lead a STEM program.


My council has a STEM camp or a STEM program. Do we have to participate in that?


Your unit is not required to participate in STEM activities run by your district or council, but why would you not want to? Commonly, those activities are very well organized and have very exciting activities for your youth. They sometimes offer more opportunities than are available in a single unit.

Find out what your council offers and contact other councils in your area. Their STEM activities can support what you are doing.


We are in a rural/urban/low-income area. We don’t have the money for STEM.


STEM activities do not need to cost a lot of money. The activities in the unit guides are designed to be inexpensive. Many components for STEM activities can be found in a kitchen or home workshop, or can be bought at a supermarket or hardware store. More information can be found in your local library or online. Helpful references are listed for each activity.

Some STEM activities can be very expensive, but if you use creativity, they don’t have to be. The idea is to gain the interest and excitement of the youth, not to conduct super-sophisticated research.


Are you sure that the STEM demonstrations will work?


Everything in the unit guides has been tested several times and worked repeatedly in our tests.

Having said that, anyone working in STEM has great respect for Murphy’s Law—“If something can go wrong, it will.” We suggest that you obtain the ingredients or components that you plan to use and test them before you use them with your youth. Sometimes, one supplier’s product will work and another supplier’s will not. Sometimes, temperature or pressure or light or other factors can change and make a difference.

You can find great demonstrations online or in various books and pamphlets. But again, try it out before you use it with your unit, using the same ingredients or components that you will use with youth.

And even then, be prepared for what you will say or do if your planned demonstration doesn’t do exactly what you expect. There’s a lot to be learned when experiments don’t work as planned. If you don’t know the answer, ask a subject matter expert. Try the demonstration again, carefully checking the directions and materials.

Further, emphasize safety in your demonstrations. Wear appropriate personal protective equipment, including safety glasses and gloves, if needed.


What’s the difference between a demonstration and an experiment?


A demonstration is planned from beginning to end. It is intended to be fun and interesting and to illustrate one or more STEM principles. The outcome is known in advance and can be expected.

An experiment is a test to see if some concept is true or to see which of two or more approaches better achieves a desired result. In a true experiment, the outcome or result is unknown in advance, at least to the experimenter. An experimental approach is selected, experiments are conducted, results are obtained, and the results are analyzed. When the data is contradictory or the data collected is statistically insignificant, an experiment may be inconclusive. Also, it is possible that none of the approaches will work.

An experiment does not need to be complicated. A Scout can do an experiment to find out which type of fire lay works best or whether small or large pieces of wood are better for starting a fire.

A true scientific experiment requires sufficient repetitions to be sure that the observation is reproducible and consistent. A single trial is not an “experiment”; rather, it can be considered an anecdote or an illustration. But one trial does not prove anything scientifically.


Do BSA Youth Protection rules apply to STEM?


Yes. This means two-deep adult leadership for all outings and activities and no one-on-one contact (one adult and one youth alone) in any case. All registered adult leaders are required to be currently certified in BSA Youth Protection. This means taking Youth Protection training at least every two years, or every year for some councils. However, all adults, registered or not, including leaders, parents, mentors, and consultants, are encouraged to take and complete BSA Youth Protection training.


Can Boy Scouts help teach STEM to Cub Scouts and Venturers guide Boy Scouts?


Absolutely. That’s a great experience for all involved. Just make sure that the teachers are well prepared, have a good plan, and know what to expect. Be sure to have adults ready to assist if needed.


Where can we obtain more information?


You may have a council STEM committee and district STEM chairs. Ask them about STEM activities in your council and district. The unit guides give you detailed guidance on how to try a few STEM themes with your unit.

The most recent information, including new Nova awards and any program updates, can be found online at www.scouting.org/stem. The Nova awards manuals are available at your local Scout shop or at www.scoutstuff.org:

  • Cub Scout Nova Awards Guidebook
  • Boy Scout Nova Awards Guidebook
  • Venturer Nova Awards Guidebook

Additionally, Boys’ Life magazine and Bryan’s Blog run features on various STEM topics. Local schools and universities may have STEM resources that will help you. A huge amount of material about STEM, including demonstrations and experiments, is available online. It can also be helpful to talk with leaders of other units about STEM and compare notes.


We have some suggestions for how to improve the unit guides.


Great! Please share them with us. Please send your ideas to: myscouting@scouting.org.