The most- and least-popular merit badges of 2012, and what that info tells us

Which merit badges had Scouts rushing to counselors and Moms and Dads rushing to the sewing machine last year?

Here’s your answer. In January 2012, I presented a list of 2011’s most- and least-popular merit badges based on sales numbers from the Supply Division. This year’s numbers come from the BSA Program folks and are based not on sales but on the actual number earned, meaning they should be more accurate.

As you’d expect, the 12 most-earned merit badges from 2012 were all Eagle-required. Those merit badges provide extra motivation for Scouts to finish them on their journey through the ranks. But the badges that ranked 13 to 130 have some interesting takeaways:

Four lessons learned

  • Newcomers Chess, Kayaking, Geocaching, and Robotics were all in the top 50, despite the fact that each is only a few years old.
  • Most, but not all, of the badges in the top 30 are offered at council summer camps, meaning it’s easier for a Scout to earn one even if there isn’t a qualified counselor in his troop.
  • The five rarest merit badges are Journalism, Stamp Collecting, American Labor, American Business, and Bugling. Search and Rescue was in 2012’s bottom five, but it shouldn’t really count because it didn’t debut until August of last year.
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) merit badges are hot, but so are the lower-tech ones like Archery, Climbing, and Wood Carving.

Biggest movers

I also compared Program Group numbers from 2011 with Program Group numbers from 2012 to see which merit badges saw the biggest jump. I eliminated any merit badges introduced in 2011 or 2012, because those numbers are unfairly skewed.

Somewhat surprisingly, Textile and Theater merit badges each saw more than a 25 percent increase from 2011 to 2012.

And these nine also had double-digit gains: Animal Science, Drafting, Pulp and Paper, Astronomy, Insect Study, Cinematography, Inventing, Electronics, and Radio.

On the other end of the spectrum, the five with the biggest drop from 2011 to 2012 were: Coin Collecting, Scouting Heritage, Snow Sports, American Labor, and Skating. Each of those fell by between 14 percent and 31 percent.

The full list

Check out the full list and make your own conclusions. Badges in green are Eagle-required, while those in yellow are new (December 2009 or sooner):


Here you go, stat geeks!

As requested, here is the Excel spreadsheet including the number earned from 2008 to 2012. (Clicking will download the .xlsx file.) Enjoy! And please post any interesting findings in the comments below.

Your takeaways?

I’d love to hear how you interpret this list. Why are the popular ones popular? How can we get more Scouts interested in those that are, let’s say, “more rare”? Share your thoughts below.

138 thoughts on “The most- and least-popular merit badges of 2012, and what that info tells us

  1. Bryan –

    For comparison, the Eagle merit badge requiremntes in 1964 were:
    1. Camping
    2. Swimming
    3. Nature
    4. Public Health
    5. Firemanship
    6. Cooking
    7. Lifesaving
    8. Personal Fitness
    9. Safety
    10. First Aid
    11. One merit badge from the Conservation Group
    12. Three merit badges from the Citizenship Group
    13. One merit badge from the Outdoor Sports Group
    14. One mreit badge from any of the following groups:
    a. Animal Husbandry
    b. Plant Cultivation
    c. Communication
    d. Transportation
    e. Building
    15. Five other merit badges (for a total of twenty-one merit badges)

    I earned Camping, Swimming, Nature,Public Health, Firemanship, Cooking, Lifesaving, Personal Fitness, Safety, First Aid, Forestry (Conservation Group), Citizenship in the Home, Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation (3 from Citizenship Group), Marksmanship (Outdoor Sports Group), Woodworking (Building Group), Pioneering, Stamp Collecting, Scholarship, Chemistry, and Bookbinding.

    Some of the merit badges that I earned have been discontinued, some have formed the basis for new merit badges, and many have had the requirements changed to meet the needs of the youth and the program as times have changed.

    • At that time, there was no Eagle Scout Leadership Service Project requirement, but the requirements for some of the merit badges made up for it, I think. I aged out in 1962.

  2. If you combine shotgun and rifle shooting into one award it would be the third most awarded badge. Just an observation, not a judgement.

    • I’ll judge: this is fantastic! Both Rifle and Shotgun Merit Badges teach the safe and proper use of firearms — in a nation where the misuse of guns in glamorized on TV and Movies, BSA is helping kids be safe around guns, and perhaps pickup a hobby they can enjoy for a lifetime.

    • I agree. However, the shooting of both is required and actually hitting the target. There is a difference in the handling and shooting of both. Honestly, the boys like having more merit badges on their sash! My son has them and enjoys displaying both.

    • On paper, that might make sense, however, there are pretty big differences between a shotgun and a rifle.

      For example–each has different parts that need to be cleaned and maintained to keep in working order.

      Learning how to use a targeting scope is a necessary skill for shooting a rifle–so, learning how to properly sight in a scope is a skill for rifles, but not shotguns.

      Keeping the two disciplines in separate badges therefore makes more sense.

    • That’s not true at all. If shotgun and rifle was one award it would not be third because there are many scouts who have earned both awards causing a larger statistic for the combination of them.

  3. The Bugling badge I understand. First you need to have musical talent and buy a trumpet or bugle. but then it is a huge effort to learn all 15 of the songs. My son is 11, plays trumpet and is working on this one. He knows 5 of the 6 commonly used ones. The 6th (To the Colors) is HARD!

    • God Bless you and your son, Alicia! Bugling is a disappearing art but there is nothing quite like it to stir the soul. The first 2 minutes or so of Patton, with just the the flag and the music (and George C. Scott, of course), is still one of the most riveting and energizing pieces of film ever made and might just help your son find the tempo and the tone.

    • When I was stationed at Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan years ago, Reville would sound followed by To the Colors. There would be a nice echo effect caused by the small hills around the base. When the duty day finished, Retreat would sound followed by the National Anthem.

    • Generally today, few of the younger Scouts will have the ability to master the calls even if they are playing in school. It’s better for those in the early high school range. Of course, that’s when I notice a lot of the interest in earning merit badges start to wane.
      As a bugler and counselor for almost 30 years, I think I’ve actually had maybe 5 Scouts earn it.
      It’s not much different than music in general. There seems to be a general decline in youth learning instruments. Maybe because it takes to long to get any real gratification and there’s just too much easy instant gratification to go around.

    • A troop should own a bugle. Vintage BSA-issued bugles can often be bought on eBay cheaper than a new bugle, but even a new bugle isn’t that expensive.

    • *= Eagle Required
      **=Must Earn one of the following for Eagle: Swimming, Hiking, or Cycling
      ***= Must earn either Lifesaving or Emergency Prepardness for Eagle
      Green Shaded: Includes all Eagle MBs including the “select one of the following”
      Yellow Shaded: New Merit Badges over the last 4 years that would cause issues if trying to find a mean over the 5 years or other trends

      Copied from H.David Pendleton from earlier comment.

  4. * = badge must be earned for Eagle rank
    ** = one of these badges must be earned for Eagle rank
    *** = one of these badges must be earned for Eagle rank
    the asterisks group the Eagle-required badges according to the official requirements, i.e. the scout must earn Hiking or Cycling or Lifesaving, hence those three have the same number of asterisks

  5. Some of my analyis. To calculate increase/decrease, I used the following formula: Ending # minus the start number divided by the start number. If not, the percent is 100% greater than the actual figure so my figures will be slightly different than Mike who calculated some of these yesterday.
    1. In 2009, only 7 of 121 Merit Badges showed a decline from 2008 as Scouts were PROBABLY looking to earn their Eagle during the Centennial Year.
    2. Only 26 of 121 Merit Badges showed a decline from 2008 to the 2012 figures.
    3. Only 6 of 121 Merit Badges showed a decline of more than 10% from the 2008 figures to the 2012 figures. These Merit Badges were: Motor Boating (-11.03%), Rowing (-13.65%), Snow Sports (-17.30%), Basketry (-18.68%), Golf (-28.41%), & Skating (-28.64%). Could it be that the down economy effected the number of families that gave up motor boating, going skiing in the Rockies, and golfing because of the cost?
    4. Fly Fishing showed a 777.51% increase from 2008 to 2012.
    5. Insect Study showed a 167.19% increase from 2008 to 2012.
    6. Plant Science showed a 125.28% increase from 2008 to 2012.
    7. There were 11 Merit Badges that had an increase between 50% & 100% from 2008 to 2012. These were: Pulp & paper, Astronomy, Engineering, Textile, Architecture, Archaeology, Nuclear Science, Entrepreneurship, American Heritage, & Chemistry.
    8. Another 16 Merit Badges had a 25% to 50% increase from 2008 to 2012.
    9. 65 other Merit Badges had some sort of increase (.01% to 24.99%) from 2008 to 2012.
    10. The biggest increase of any Eagle Merit Badge between 2008 and 2012 was Citizenship in the Community at 15.26%

    • David, where did you obtain these stats? I am working with the fishing committee and would love to substantiate these numbers.

      • Daniel: Information came from the spreadsheet Bryan added after his initial post. You can still click on it at the top.

  6. One unpopular merit badge that has needed revision for 50 years is “Model Design and Building”. As a kid, I was an avid builder of model aircraft. It’s a popular hobby with many magazines, many shows, and the IPMA.

    So when I heard they were offering “Model Design and Building” merit badge i was excited until I read the requirements and thus never got it.

    The merit badge totally ignores the plastic model building hobby entirely, and concentrates just on commercial model making careers, such as the guys who make the clay models of new cars. Seems that’s still the case which is why no one seems to earn it.

    I’ve often thought that that merit badge should have a separate track for plastic model makers (much like “Snow Sports” with different tracks for skiing and snowboarding) . I’m sure the IPMA could help with drafting and promoting it.

    • Gary the reason plastic models don’t count is you have to design and build a model, and cannot use a kit as specified in the requirements. If you want to build the 2 models required from plastic you can do so, but you cannot use a kit since you have to design the model prior to building it.

  7. How about from 2010…How many of the ‘Centenial’ MB’s were earned?
    (Carpentry, Pathfinding, Signaling &Tracking)

  8. I think this was such an interesting list. Thank you for compiling it. I had a few thoughts about it though. First, I wonder what the breakdown for earning non-required badges is by region/council. It would be interesting to see if certain badges are earned more frequently in certain areas. Also, chess is a very popular badge in our troop. I think some merit badges also depend on specific talents. My son is very artistic and is working on the Art, Pottery, and Sculpture badges but he is not an athlete so he is really uninterested in some of the sports badges. I think that is the beauty of Scouting – allowing boys to learn and pursue their interests!

  9. Fascinating that “American Business” is the second least popular MB in the country. Is there a bigger story about a decline of interest in American business and entrepreneurship (please, let’s avoid the usual political snarky comments) – or is it just because the MB requirements are outdated or lame?

    • It may be because the merit badge has nothing to do with business. It addresses banking, union membership, and other bureaucratic crap. Nothing about entrepreneurialism or actually building a business. They don’t even get to set up a lemonade stand. The AB MB is catastrophically BORING.

      • Amer Biz is definitely boring. I’m in business and didn’t sign up for being counselor for it because of that.

  10. My son’s earned these MB at summer camp. Amazingly, these are some of the highest earned MB over the last 5 yrs. Coincidence? (Number is 5 yr total of MB earned from spreadsheet)
    Summer Camp Merit badges:
    Archery (230121)
    Basketry (123800)
    Camping (306866)
    Canoeing (203473)
    Cit in the Community (284110)
    Cit in the Nation (316166)
    Cit in the World (331405)
    Climbing (121044)
    Cooking (119496)
    Environmental Science (379228)
    Fingerprinting (452027)
    Geology (114318)
    Indian Lore (144280)
    Leatherwork (255449)
    Lifesaving (142348)
    Mammal Study (148963)
    Pioneering (110024)
    Rifle Shooting (253295)
    Shotgun Shooting (127672)
    Swimming (392514)
    Wilderness Survival (221524)
    Wood Carving (230025)

  11. I have to say that I am both surprise and a bit disheartened that reading is so low on the list (84th) in popularity. I am surprised because frankly it is one of the easiest merit badges to learn. I am disheartened because I fear that it’s a reflection in what seems to be the ever declining “popularity” of reading in general.

    • My son earned the Reading merit badge. It wasn’t so easy for him but he enjoyed finding books to reading and working with his school librarian. I think more boys should earn it because the skills could help with earning other merit badges.

      • Beth, my son earned it as well. He’s a big reader. In fact, there are nights that we go to his room several times to remind him that it’s past bedtime and have “threatened” to remove the lightbulbs from the room if he doesn’t go to sleep. He loved working with his school librarian and volunteering time in the library. Most public library systems will allow teenagers over 14 to volunteer to help with their summer reading program, which is good way to get either the required four hours of work in the library or to get the four hours of reading to a group (i.e. of smaller children) done.

        • All my children read in bed at night. My sons set up their own “mini-book club.” My oldest read nightly to his younger siblings to fulfill that requirement. Not only did he work on the badge but he enjoyed quality time with his siblings and his LA teacher said his comprehension and reading abilities actually improved as a result of the merit badge. What I like about Scouting is the variety. Yes, the boys have required mbs to earn but there is so much choice and everything isn’t all sports!

  12. I think it’s also notable that of the Swimming/Hiking/Cycling series the the breakdown of percentage earned is as follows –
    Swimming – 84.11%
    Hiking – 8.51%
    Cycling – 7.38%

    I’m a Swimming MB Counselor and have been working on Hiking with two of my Scouts. I can tell you that there’s no wonder Swimming is so highly earned. The time needed to complete the Hiking MB completely dwarfs the time for Swimming. And as an endurance walker, I think it’s a little cruel to require Scouts to do an endurance distance hike (20 miles). I mean it’s not like you have to do the mile swim to get the swimming MB.

    I realize the focus of the swimming MB is different and there is time invested in learning all of the strokes but I don’t think a Scout who cannot swim well should be forced to do an endurance event simply to earn the hiking (or cycling) MB.

    • I think Swimming wins out here because it is offered at summer camp so can be done in a week; my son is not a strong swimmer and opted for Hiking – and the last requirement he did was the 20 miler – it is a daunting prospect even for a strong hiker.

  13. Is anyone for bring back beekeeping merit badge? I earned it back in the 70’s. But it was dropped about a decade ago. Bees are declining in America. Scouts could help in the revival with the education about beekeeping. Ideas?

    • I wrote a letter with over a 100 signatures requesting this to come back and didn’t even get a reply back. I found that very sad.

  14. I think it would be great to bring back beekeeping MB. We need many more young people to learn and practice this art. When the bees are gone . . . there goes most of our food. I’m not sure how to go about building interest in it though. My wife and I are beginning bee keepers, but we aren’t very good at it yet. It takes time that we don’t seem to find. I should be harvesting honey today instead of reading BSA blogs!

    • Randall, in the 70s my Eagle brothers started a business based on earning the Beekeeping merit badge, which paid for one to go through college and the other to start a scholarship fund for fellow scouts. He went into business with our uncle instead of going to college.

      I inherited the bee business and it paid several semesters for me too, before the bees all flew off. The number of people who are raising bees in their urban backyards as a result of sustainable gardening is astonishing!

      Our local beekeepers club has tripled in size in the last year! I think the time has come to bring back the badge.

  15. I think they should be able to use plastic model kits. It would serve as a precursor to designing their own. There are many steps to be able to design anything. Playing with or building someone elses design will help the design process in the brain started. I think scouting is about introducing many things to a scout and helping them through a learning process. Let them have some fun. Those that build models for new cars have had many design classes before they can crank out a masterpiece.

  16. What do you all think of an aquatic ecology merit badge? There are no current merit badges that address this. I think there is a lot of potential for awareness of highly sensitive and interestng ecosystems and there could be some cool activities and demonstrations.

  17. got search and rescue, great merit badge and journalism is really really good, not easy to find teachers for them though

  18. Am a counselor for reading, scholarship, and scouting heritage; seldom have any calls. What is really disappointing is that most scouts could easily complete the first two simply with a bit of outside effort, as they do most of the work in school anyway. The idea that knowledge and its attending skill of reading is somehow “not cool” has a bit to do with it of course; but I think it is mostly a simple lack of knowing they exist, as they often are not included in lists for merit badge roundups and such.

    It really sad how little interest there appears to be in the Scouting Heritage badge after the initial introduction in 2010. On the other hand, history in general is not as popular as it once was, unless it has to do with war. The badge itself could still use a few tweaks, as noted on this site at one time. Expanding the notable scouters to include William Hillcourt for sure, and possibly a few others would broaden it a bit.

    Reality is likely that any badge that requires research beyond the very basic level is not going to be popular without it being required or hand fed by someone. That is a problem in school as well; most kids do only what is absolutely required, and look for the easy way even then. Instant gratification and pure laziness are really issues in today’s world.

  19. I expect to see SAR climb in the ranks. As a SAR counselor all of the boys I’ve coached through the badge have loved it.

    One other thing, as a new cycling counselor I hope to see it gain some ground. The mountain bike option has me pretty excited. I am working on getting a MTB program started at the council level. I do believe hiking and cycling are significantly harder to earn than swimming.

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