How to Earn the Girl Scout CSA Outdoor Art Badge (Without Doing Any of the Suggested Activities, Ahem)

Whenever I teach multi-level Girl Scout leaders and we get to talking about badges, I always tell them that a great way for multiple levels of Girl Scouts to simultaneously earn a certain badge is to do none of the suggested activities. 

Your troop of Cadettes, Seniors, and Ambassadors want to earn the Space Science badge at each of their levels? Don't do any of the activities suggested for any of those levels. Instead, make up your own activities

So when six of my CSA Girl Scouts wanted to come together to earn the Outdoor Art badge last month, we threw out the badge books and instead used a Shared Google Doc to figure out what we actually wanted to do.

After seeing that the kids were mostly interested in various carving skills, I steered the meeting towards one that would involve exploring our local area's limestone industry, then engaging in hands-on experimentation with limestone art, and expanding into other ways to carve and embellish sculptural art.

We met on the campus of Indiana University-Bloomington, and while standing under the Sample Gates we talked about how and where limestone was formed. Our area is unique because the band of Salem Limestone underneath it is quite narrow and only spans the length of two counties. That's why we see so many old quarries around here--they had to be put close together, because that's where the limestone is! 

Salem Limestone has good consistency and small grains because of the way that the waves constantly agitated the shallow sea that once existed above it. It's strong, easily carved, and holds detail well. And yet, until the rail industry was extensive enough to provide transportation, Salem Limestone was only a local industry. That's why we see so many old residential houses with limestone facades--there was loads of limestone to be had locally, and no outside markets to buy it up!

When railroads came to the area, however, Salem Limestone became a national industry. That's why there are so many train tracks and rail trails in our area--there used to be railroads everywhere to transport that limestone!

Labor reforms were eventually necessary to the industry. Limestone carving was difficult, manual labor, and before reforms, workers would tell stories of how unemployed people would just stand next to the quarries all day. If a manager saw that a worker wasn't working as hard as they thought he should, the manager would fire that worker on the spot and call a bystander in to take his place. Even after reforms, limestone carving remained difficult, manual labor, but it paid a living wage and was the expected career of several generations of families. 

The evolution of architecture styles and building materials eventually tanked the Salem Limestone industry, and now it's mostly used for niche, high-end architecture and university campuses that utilize the "collegiate gothic" style. When the industry tanked, people who'd worked in quarries for their entire careers, after their parents and grandparents had worked in the same quarries for their entire careers, and who expected their children to also work in the same quarries, were let go. They had no other readily marketable skills, no disposable income used to further their education, and there was no other nearby industry that they could easily transition to. Their children were also stuck without access to the careers they'd planned, and even with a university right in town, one whose buildings were built from their parents' and grandparents' labor, they didn't have the income or necessarily the academic preparation for higher education. That's partially why our area has such a weird income/education/culture divide--it economically hobbled whole swaths of long-term residents who now fight for employment and housing and cultural ideals against the hyper-educated residents who are here because of the university.

Never let it be said that I led a single Girl Scout meeting without bringing up politics and social justice and the price of long-term rentals in town!

So after we were all inspired to seize the means of production and legislate universal pre-K and build low-barrier shelters for the unhoused, we went on a walking tour of the IU campus to see some examples of limestone architecture. The kids were asked to bring binoculars--

They did look at interesting architecture with their binoculars, but spent a rather shocking amount of time also looking at innocent passersby...

--and cameras, and were instructed to take photos of interesting architecture as part of their badge activities. 

Here's Franklin Hall, which began as the university's library:

It's been extensively renovated and turned into the home of the university's Media School--

--but the John Milton quote remains relevant:

This is the Student Building:

The clock tower has 14 bells that chime every 15 minutes, and can also be played live. In 1990 that whole tower burned down and had to rebuilt using the original 1905 plans.

We walked around and photographed a few more buildings and the campus cemetery, although the kids were definitely more excited about the non-architectural things that we also saw, like squirrels, a wedding party trying to take photos in the rain, a random couple of students breaking geodes on the street, etc.

After we had seen all the awesome limestone things, we settled down to make our own awesome things! With such a diverse cast of characters, I'm never entirely sure who knows what, so I started with a basic lesson for everyone on pocket knife safety, how to hold a knife while whittling and carving, and how to sharpen a knife. Then Matt and my co-leader and I set up stations so the kids could explore various carving and embellishing skills.

Here's Will at the limestone engraving station:

Hoadley Quarry gave Matt several pieces of limestone for hand carving and engraving. I brought my workhorse Dremel and a set of engraving bits, and only lost one to an over-zealous Girl Scout!

We set up a separate station for limestone hand carving, with the larger pieces of limestone, a sandbag and old towel to brace the limestone, and my set of stone carving tools that's similar to this one

These two stations also had safety glasses, because nobody likes a corneal abrasion!

The kids could use their own pocket knives or my set of wood carving tools to carve soap or twigs:

I showed the kids these super cute twig gnomes, and some of them tried it out, while others did their own thing.

We had a couple of stations set up with wood burners. The kids could burn details into their wood carvings, or wood burn a wooden spoon. It was a little early for holiday gift-making when we met, but a wood burned spoon would make an awesome gift!

I also brought my acrylics, brushes, and water cups and set up a station in case a kid felt more like surface decoration than carving, and a couple of kids used this space to paint their twig gnomes or experiment with adding detail to their limestone engraving.

Overall, this was a super successful Girl Scout meeting! The kids all tried new things, all found something they liked doing, all learned some useful things and still had time to chat and mess around. I feel like the relevance of studying a local industry that's so visually apparent in their daily lives added meaning to the badge work, and hopefully helped them contextualize some local issues.

And if nobody's parent gets a wood burned spoon for Christmas, it's not my fault!