Boys earn a lot of merit attending day-long college

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Joseph DelPonte joined the Boys Scouts when he was 13. He loved being a scout and, after he aged out, he kept involved. But the weekly demands became too much. He wondered if there might be an event he could run once a year. So, he became a dean of a college.

That makes it sound too easy.

DelPonte is the founder and the dean of the Merit Badge College that was conducted this Saturday at Rhode Island College. It’s no small undertaking.

The college offered instruction in 59 badges ranging from nuclear science, oceanography and robotics to woodcarving, drafting and veterinary medicine. Each of the classes has two volunteer instructors and as many as 20 Boy Scouts.

DelPonte draws upon friends and friends of friends to fill all of the instructor slots. A systems engineer at Electric Boat, DelPonte also recruited his co-workers, including the president of the drafters’ union and a couple of key trainers at EB.

“Basically, I never quit,” DelPonte said, reflecting on his youthful days in scouting and what he is doing now. Borrowing on what he has seen done by a few scouting councils across the country, DelPonte approached the Narragansett Council with the concept. He also talked with RIC, which embraced the merit badge college. That was 15 years ago, and the college has been held at RIC ever since.

“It’s a great partnership,” he said.

That first year the college offered 15 classes and had an enrollment of 237 Boy Scouts.

“We started off small,” he explains.

On Saturday enrollment was close to 1,000 with classes being conducted in several buildings. Scouts were armed with class schedules and campus maps.

Classes are filled on a registration, first come first served basis. The $30 registration fee covered the cost of lunch, materials and, as every “college” Scout should have, a college patch to wear proudly. Not surprisingly, based on what’s of interest at the time, some classes fill up rapidly. Scouts from across the region attend the college with some as far away as Maine at Saturday’s session.

DelPonte said robotics was the hot class a couple of years ago and it still had a full enrollment this year, although the slots didn’t fill up as quickly.

One class that looked to have room to spare was journalism. Channel 10 reporter Brian Crandall and cameraman Ryan Pickering, who have been “college instructors” for the last three years, put their scouts to work on a story about the college. They visited classes doing on-camera reports and interviews that once they were back in the classroom were edited for the story.

In the classroom, Crandall talked of the importance of accuracy in reporting and how going into a story it can be the unexpected that becomes the story.

Crandall said he likes his role as an instructor as he gets to explain what reporters do.

Cranston Fire Chief William A. McKenna, who taught a class in fire safety, found himself in a similar position when he opened the floor to questions. The scouts were interested in hearing the requirements to become a firefighter, what jobs there are other than fighting fires and rescue calls and, while it seemed early to be thinking about it, after how many years of service they could retire.

Retirement, at least as dean, isn’t in DelPonte’s vocabulary. Scouting is in his blood and it’s part of his family. His two sons are both Eagle Scouts. He said he has a solid core team that could easily take on the college if he wanted to step aside. But it’s not likely to happen.

“It’s kind of hard to let your baby go,” he said.

There will be one change, if not others, at next year’s college. As of this February, girls will be in scouting and eligible for the college.

“We will have them,” DelPonte said.

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