Scouts earn rare badge with help from AFTAC

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
Boy Scouts from around Central Florida traveled to the Air Force Technical Applications Center Oct. 22 to earn one of the Boy Scouts of America’s more rare badges, the Nuclear Science Merit Badge (formerly known as the Atomic Energy Badge).
Just over 5,000 Scouts worldwide earn the NSMB each year, compared to more than 48,000 who earn the Camping Badge annually. The requirements include understanding the definition of words like atom, nucleus, isotopes, and ionization; being able to describe the hazards of radiation; building a cloud chamber; and constructing a 3-D model of an atomic element.
Made up of 13 troops from six Florida counties, 62 Scouts – boys and girls alike – arrived at the base bright and early Saturday morning, excited to learn more about nuclear science from experts in the field.  AFTAC is the Department of Defense’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring agency, employing a diverse cross-section of scientists, engineers, analysts, technical applications specialists, data processors, and mathematicians.
The first portion of the day’s agenda was held in the center’s Northrup Auditorium, where the Scouts received briefings about particle accelerators, power plants and radioactivity.
In between the briefings, troops were broken up into smaller groups, where they were able to build cloud chambers using felt and petri dishes and create a 3-D model of a hydrogen atom and its isotopes using pretzel sticks, marshmallows and gum drops.
Each time a Scout asked a question of a subject matter expert, they were rewarded with candy.  Many AFTAC Airmen were thoroughly impressed with the level of some of their questions.
“I was shocked to hear some of the questions these kids were asking,” said Da’Monie McRae, a chemist in the lab.  “Many of them really seemed to know what they were talking about, and it was amazing to listen to their level of understanding of nuclear science.  At some point I thought to myself, ‘One of these scouts is going to ask me a question and they’re going to stump me!’  That’s how intelligent they all were.”
Following the briefings and hands-on activities, the group was escorted to AFTAC’s outdoor pavilion to enjoy pizza and chips.  Special visits from the AFTAC commander, Col. James A. Finlayson, and 45th Security Forces Squadron Investigator Tech. Sgt. Melvin Underwood, rounded out the lunch break.  Each made a point to circulate among the Scouts to talk to them about life in the Air Force.
Finlayson presented his military challenge coin to Liam Walders of Troop 323 – much to the young Scout’s complete surprise – after learning the 10th grader posed some pretty challenging questions to the commander’s subject matter experts.
“This is a great opportunity for me to recognize the future of America – Scouts like Liam, and all of you here today, who have put in many hours to earn badges like the Nuclear Science Merit Badge,” said Finlayson.  “I am a huge advocate of lifelong learning, and events like this are paramount to our nation’s success.  Liam, keep up the great work, and to all of you in attendance, thank you for being here today!”
From the pavilion, the troops were given the opportunity to tour the Ciambrone Radiochemistry Lab, the only one of its kind in the U.S. Air Force.  Here, they saw demonstrations using liquid nitrogen, learned how a mass spectrometer works, had their hands and feet scanned using an Alpha/Beta survey meter to check for potential contamination, and visited the lab’s Gamma Count Room.
“Helping scouts earn this badge provides an excellent opportunity for our Airmen to demonstrate what we do and showcase the work that’s performed here at AFTAC,” said Troy Porter, Laboratory Equipment Technician and Scout Master for Troop 314. “Our event in 2020 was schedule to happen just a few weeks after the start of the pandemic, which forced us to cancel.  I’m happy to bring back this event for the Scout of Central Florida because I know how much they look forward to this opportunity.  We will continue to grow and improve this event in the future.”
Shelle Pendergrast, an Assistant Scout Master with Troop 323 in Melbourne, accompanied her troop, which included her son, Leo, to the event.
“A few years ago, my older son, Luke, participated in AFTAC’s merit badge program,” she said.  “I’m not joking when I say it changed him.  He was so impressed with what he learned and what he saw, and he still talks about to this day.  He earned more than 60 badges, and this one remains his absolute favorite.”
She added, “Being surrounded by the servicemen and women gives us all such a great sense of structure, discipline, pride, and what it must feel like to be in the military every day.  I’m sure all the kids who are here today will remember it forever.”
Assistant Scout Master Johnny Hartley of Troop 343 in Merritt Island had similar impressions.
“This is a phenomenal program,” he said. “The amount of exposure to his type of material is invaluable, especially since we know the boys are getting it directly from experts in the field,” Hartley said.  “I had never heard of AFTAC before, but one of our past members who is an Eagle Scout with something like 70-80 badges to his name came here a few years ago and said it was, by far, the best badge he ever earned.  The energy the people here have put forth has been remarkable, and we can’t thank them enough for giving our Scouts such a fantastic opportunity, especially on their day off!”
In 2019, the Boy Scouts of America began accepting girls from 5th grade through high school into the program to afford them the same opportunity as boys.  That same year, AFTAC welcomed its first troop of girls to participate in the NSMB event on base.
Amanda Clements is the Scout Master for Troop 4001 in Daytona Beach.  She and her six girls were so excited to travel from Volusia County to Brevard County to learn about atomic energy and nuclear science.
“I am so impressed with the people here at AFTAC,” she said.  “Everyone has been so nice, so friendly, and so willing to make this a special time for our Scouts.  Since COVID, it’s so rare to find locations that are willing to help us earn badges in person, and unfortunately, many who did in-person events in the past haven’t come back.  So when we heard about this opportunity, we jumped at it!  It’s been great to see the excitement on the girls’ faces. We did so much research on the subject and tried to find out as much as we could about AFTAC, even while we were making the drive down to the base!”
Shannon Meredith, a member of Clements’ troop, put it simply: “This was the best day ever!”