Decoding the art of merit badges

Merit badges represent days, weeks or even months of work by Scouts. That much is clear.

But what isn’t always clear is what the artwork on the merit badges themselves represents.

Some are easy to figure out: Two dogs on Dog Care, a pair of paddles on Canoeing and a camera on Photography.

Some aren’t so obvious: What exactly are we looking at on Archaeology, Chemistry and Graphic Arts merit badges, for example?

For the answers, I did some of my own research by looking through merit badge requirements for clues. I also talked to Steve Bowen, member of the Merit Badge Maintenance Task Force.

“Some merit badge artwork has lost its identity into the dust of history,” Bowen tells me. “Some merit badge icons haven’t changed in decades, and the individuals who created these iconic images are long gone.”

So, like any great art, it’s up to us to interpret what we’re seeing. Follow the jump for my analysis of 20 merit badges. If you have more you’d like me to (try to) interpret, leave a comment below.

Note: With some of these, I offer admittedly oversimplified explanations. So if you’re a counselor for one of these merit badges, please feel free to add information in the comments section. I’ll update the text here when/if needed.

Let’s go.

Archaeology-explained-2Archaeology: Prehistoric arrowhead

A petrified fossil, maybe? No, turns out that brown thing on Archaeology merit badge is a prehistoric arrowhead.

Specifically, the arrowhead in question looks to me like this, a “Unique Paleoindian Arrowhead Known as a ‘Folsom Point.’”

Scouts who take Archaeology merit badge find and analyze history through objects like these.

Athletics-explainedAthletics: Winged foot

Athletics merit badge, where Scouts live up to the promise to “keep myself physically strong,” features requirements that include running, swimming and weight training.

Those events are found in the Olympic Games, so it makes sense the merit badge art includes the winged foot associated with Hermes, one of the Greek gods who resided atop a mythical Mount Olympus.

Chemistry-explainedChemistry: Distilling flask

A distilling flask, which is a round-bottomed glass instrument used for distilling things, is what you’re seeing on Chemistry merit badge, which teaches Scouts about this important STEM field.

But one unanswered question remains: Is it half full or half empty?

Collecting-explainedCollections: Seashell, car, train, butterfly, baseball card

No two Scouts are alike, and the same goes for two Scouts’ collections.

Whether they collect seashells, cars, trains, butterflies, baseball cards or something else entirely, Collections merit badge is for them.

Composite-Materials-explainedComposite Materials: Fiberglass and resin

Composite materials are found in bathtubs and golf clubs, canoes and bike helmets. The Composite Materials merit badge helps Scouts explore that interesting world.

But first: What’s on the patch?

It appears to be fiberglass with resin being poured on it. The resin helps repair or rebuild items made of fiberglass.

Dentistry-explainedDentistry: Emblem of dentistry

The American Dental Association uses this official emblem to represent its profession. Same with Dentistry merit badge, where Scouts learn what’s really behind a winning smile.

But what’s behind the emblem (and, therefore, the merit badge)? This blog post from the American Student Dental Association explains it in detail. The snake is a symbol of rejuvenation and healing. Other snakes show up on the badges for Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

The Delta and Omicron letters symbolize dentistry and teeth.

Drafting-explainedDrafting: Drafting triangle and T-square

Two essential tools of drafting find their way onto the art for Drafting merit badge.

Scouts who earn Drafting will no doubt use a triangle and T-square as they learn this “highly refined form of drawing used to communicate ideas to engineers, architects and craftspeople.”

Electronics-explainedElectronics: Diagram of a transistor

In Electronics merit badge, Scouts learn about capacitors, transistors and resistors. As part of that process, they draw electronics diagrams.

That’s what you’re seeing in this art. Specifically, as commenter Frank M. points out below, you’re seeing the schematic symbol of “a transistor (specifically a PNP-type transistor), the fundamental component of nearly all modern electronics.” (Thanks to Frank and others for explaining this to me!)

Emergency-Preparedness-explainedEmergency Preparedness: A cross, a house, lightning and Morse code

The Eagle-required Emergency Preparedness merit badge makes perfect sense for Scouts wanting to Be Prepared. Scouts learn to carefully analyze emergency situations.

But the merit badge art takes equally careful analysis.

The cross could be a road sign or an ambulance-style cross. The house must represent the plan Scouts make to prepare for a fire or explosion in the home.

But what are those six green marks? Mike, in the comments below, explains that the two almost-vertical lines are lightning strikes. The other, more horizontal lines, are Morse code. It spells H-E-L-P. That message is hard to see in an embroidered patch, but this picture helps you see it more clearly. (Thanks, Mike!)

Energy-explainedEnergy: Lowercase E

This one has stumped everyone I’ve talked to, including Bowen.

Could it be as simple as this: A lowercase letter E? That’s our best guess. The inward-pointing arrow is a nod to the Energy merit badge requirements that have Scouts discuss ways to reduce energy use.

Energy merit badge counselors, do you have a better guess of what we’re seeing? Leave a comment if so.

Entrepreneurship-explainedEntrepreneurship: Reaching for the stars

Sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one. That’s true of the art for Entrepreneurship merit badge, which depicts the act of reaching for the stars (or, technically, a singular star).

The art is simple, but the merit badge itself is anything but. Scouts must “start and run their own business ventures.” Talk about reaching for the stars!

Graphic-Arts-explainedGraphic Arts: Color bars and halftone dots

Graphic Arts merit badge gives Scouts a look into printing and publishing industries, a subject we’re passionate about at Boys’ Life and Scouting magazines.

As for the merit badge art, the left side shows CMYK, the four-color process used for printing most documents. The letters stand for cyan, magenta, yellow and black (also called “key”).

On the right is halftone dots, a technique that generates a gradient-like effect, explains commenter Mark. (Thanks, Mark!)

Inventing-explainedInventing: A stone wheel

A bale of hay? No, the Inventing merit badge depicts one of the original inventions in history: the wheel.

Young inventors who earn this new merit badge “creatively think of ways to improve the lives of others.”

Nuclear-Science-explainedNuclear Science: The nuclear force

A look at a periodic table will tell you that U is uranium. D is typically used to symbolize deuterium, while an E represents an electron, Bowen says.

Uranium, of course, is a vital part of nuclear power. Nuclear Science merit badge gives Scouts a look at this important, but hazardous, resource.

Commenter Dave B. explains that what we’re seeing here is the nuclear force.

Pets-explainedPets: A cat and a goldfish wearing a football helmet?

I see a goldfish, a cat and … what exactly is that blue circle behind the fish supposed to be?

This is another one that has me stumped. One of my colleagues said it looks like the goldfish is wearing a football helmet, but that just seems silly. Goldfish wear baseball helmets.

Pets-explained2Update: Commenters John and ScouterBill, below, explain that it’s a parrot head. The yellow is the eye, and that’s the parrot’s beak overlapping the goldfish.

It’s hard to see, so I’ve included a different version of the patch someone posted online. I left my original with the football helmet — just because.

Anyway, Pets merit badge is a great way for Scouts to learn about responsible pet ownership.

Programming-explainedProgramming: Binary code (with a secret message)

Scouts who earn the new Programming merit badge practice writing and modifying code in three different programming languages.

The art for the badge also contains a coded message in the 1s and 0s of binary code. Look at only the lighter-green numbers, and read each line separately. Scouts who translate this code will see the following message.

SPOILER ALERT! Skip this part if you don’t want to know.

01000010 translates to B
01010011 translates to S
01000001 translates to A

Yes, there’s a BSA hidden in the art of every Programming merit badge.

Radio-explainedRadio: Broadcast signal and a message in Morse code

In Radio merit badge, Scouts learn about the different ways to send and receive messages over the air. That lesson is represented in the artwork by jagged red lines symbolic of radio transmissions.

One blink-and-you-miss-it element of the art is worth pointing out. See those white dots and dashes? That’s Morse code, also part of Radio merit badge. But those aren’t random dots and dashes. The three letters — dash dot dot dot, dot dot dot, and dot dash — spell out B-S-A. Cool!

Robotics-explainedRobotics: Mars rover

One of the newest merit badges, Robotics merit badge lets Scouts built and test an actual robot. How cool is that?

Speaking of cool, the art on the Robotics patch features the Mars rover on the surface of the red planet.

(Thanks to Andrew, who left a comment below saying more parents are stumped by this patch than any other.)

Textile-explainedTextile: Spindle of yarn

This one’s pretty simple: it’s a spindle of yarn! Textile merit badge takes Scouts inside the world of the “countless fibers and fabrics” that go into products they encounter every day.

One of the requirements states: “Describe the main steps in making raw fiber into yarn, and yarn into fabric.”

Weather-explainedWeather: Weather vane

A weather vane is what our ancestors used to determine the speed and direction of wind before we could get that information on our TVs, computers and smartphones.

I’m kidding, of course. Weather vanes are still used today, but Scouts who earn Weather merit badge learn about much more exciting elements of weather like tornadoes and hurricanes.

Help Wanted!

Have a better explanation for any of the merit badge art I explain above?

Want me to interpret a merit badge not listed above?

Let’s continue the fun in the comments below.


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Bryan on Scouting

Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the senior editor of Scouting and Eagles' Call magazines. You can read more of his posts at