Ability to 'Be Prepared' broadly helpful in Josh Kirby's career

Jim Carlson
July 11, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was through the Boy Scouts of America that Josh Kirby found education, and the Penn State assistant professor of education remains devoted to making things better for others in both of those fundamentally vital facets of his life.


Josh Kirby is pictured at the New River Gorge overlook in West Virginia. Scouts at the World Scout Jamboree will raft on the New River, among countless other activities, according to Kirby.

IMAGE: Provided

Kirby, who is the program coordinator of the Learning, Design, and Technology Program's online programs in the College of Education at Penn State, doubles (in a volunteer role) as chief of staff for program at the 24th World Scout Jamboree scheduled for July 22 to Aug. 2 in southern West Virginia. It takes about two years to plan specific program activities for not quite two weeks of implementing them in order to have a positive effect on 45,000 to 50,000 young people.

Kirby joined the world of scouting at age 7. He took full advantage of everything it had to offer, including being ahead of his time on an Eagle Scout project that started a version of the SADD (Students Against Doing Drugs) program in his hometown east of Rochester, New York in the mid 1990s. The following year many of his project’s initiatives became the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program for the Albion Central School District.

"That Eagle Scout Leadership Service Project had a lot of hints to what I've become," Kirby said. "There was an educational element, there was a management element, there was a program design element that all fit together, and that match well with my professional career now."

Shortly after this summer's jamboree ends, Kirby will have been involved in scouting for 33 years, which is around 33 percent longer than he's spent advancing his education. It's safe to say both time-consuming commitments have served him well.

"I would not feel as prepared to do some of the volunteer work that I'm doing if I didn't have the background that I have working with programs to try to develop educational experiences that prepare people in helping others and teaching others and developing others," Kirby said. 

"In my academic program we focus on educational technology and the design of learning environments, so that's what I teach here. But then I use those skills that I teach here in the volunteer world to actually provide leadership and management to those types of efforts that we're doing for young people with the jamboree, or any of the other committees I serve on."

Kirby wears a green-and-white wristband from the 2017 National Scout Jamboree and on it is the word 'helpful.' He was asked to serve as chief of staff by his 'boss,' Col. Andrew Martin.

"The main reason I asked Josh to serve was because of his selfless dedication to scouting," Martin said. "I was struck by his involvement on many levels of the BSA and the wealth of experience that he brought to the table. His professional demeanor, leadership style and organizational skills made him well-suited to serve as our chief of staff."

One of the differences between Kirby's pair of passion-driven jobs is the timing of feedback and subsequent satisfaction. "The benefit of working with a lot of scouting programs is that there is a culmination when you can see development happen, especially doing it with large event management. You can see at least the initial effects of the work that you are doing by the end of a well-designed event," Kirby said.

"When working with graduate students, the satisfaction comes usually on a delay. The students may be happy to be involved with you and they share positive feedback, but an event like the jamboree targets ages 14-18, and that's a pivotal time in young-adult development. Those older adolescents are starting to understand personal identity and have a better idea of where they fit in the world."

At 20 years old, Kirby's deputy, Charles Echard, is younger than Kirby's graduate students, but Kirby saw leadership qualities in Echard about five years ago and chose him for the deputy role. Echard has been impressed with Kirby's ability to coordinate and plan.

"Josh is able to compile hundreds of pieces of information, be it personnel transportation or other programmatic needs, and turn all of this scattered information into a cohesive plan," Echard said. "He's probably motivated by the fact that this cohesive plan is to provide quality program to thousands of young adults from around the world.

"Working on this jamboree with Josh has been an exhilarating experience. Being surrounded by people like Josh who are committed to the Scout movement is indescribable," he said.

Kirby's doctorate is in instructional systems which, he said, is an earlier version of the program in which he's now working. "Instructional systems design was where I really focused on the design of learning environments and, in particular, in an arena called non-formal learning (which is volitional, where the participants choose to belong but it still has structure to it)," he said.

"In a nonformal learning environment like scouting and 4-H and church youth groups, the idea is that you're trying to appeal to that audience so they want to learn more. Those who are more studied, more senior, are aiming to shape the experience so that the participants can learn all that they can in an intentional and purposeful manner."

Kirby's intriguing combination of education and volunteerism is at once intricate and elaborate. He also earned a degree in educational psychology from the College of Education, and that was focused on motivation to learn. He combined that degree with a doctorate of instructional systems that focused on the design of learning environments and the experiences that people have within that.

"And add on the fact that I teach those same skills and enrich and deepen my knowledge of working in the learning design field with the help of so many of my graduate students. I can also apply those skills in a jamboree leadership role where we have 5,000 (scouting) staff members who are all working to be appealing to young people, to deliver an educational program that will interest our target audience," Kirby said.

"If you stay focused on the learner and what they care about, you begin to develop an eye and an ear as to what will be interesting, what will be fun and what will keep the learner engaged," he said. How can you draw them in so they want to do more? The activity has to be safe; it has to be cost-effective; it has to be fun and sensitive to how each of the world's cultures may interpret these learning experiences that we're trying to provide … fun, educational, fulfilling, enriching. 

"You have to be more confident as a leader and be more confident as a designer and deliverer of those experiences in order to achieve our overall vision, which is to have the 24th World Scout Jamboree become the largest short-term educational youth event in the world."

And they aim for the jamboree to be successful as well; with the careful planning and super-sized staff and administration behind it, the effort is constant. "There's just something magical and kind of enchanting for our scouts when they can be with so many similar-age peers who are all scouts and who are all in the same place experiencing many of the same activities. The magic is that each scout experiences the jamboree in a different way," Kirby said. 

Kirby noted that while the program activities each are important for the tens of thousands of scouting participants, the activity might be secondary to the relationships that they're forming.

"The overall goal is that the youth participants have the safest and most fun time of their lives while they are with us," he said. "We believe we are a mountaintop experience. We are that moment that a young person will look back on for the rest of their lives. 

"The titillating part of being in this role and developing this program -- the part that makes us tingle -- is that we just never know what part of the experience will be the memory that someone carries with them for the remainder of their lives. It could be a vocation, an interest in a profession, or maybe they see a role model there and they want to model their lives after that person. The model could be spiritual, or could be professional, or could be personal."

Regardless of the program activity, many of the stadium shows at the jamboree are designed to be life-changing for the scouts, according to Kirby. "We have three large shows where there will be 50,000 people in attendance – including thousands of guests and dignitaries. Those shows are bookends of the experience and it helps us connect with those young people with some excitement," he said.

Constant communication is a vital facet among staff and the participants, and Kirby's background in technology comes in handy in that aspect as well. He helped customize a mass communication platform called Rocket.Chat. 

"I know I'm in the right role because something I would talk about here at Penn State, I suddenly have to talk about for the jamboree. Facilitating team communication and collaboration are all skills being used when I have to work here and work there," Kirby said.

The scouts at the jamboree will also use a technology called Klik, he said, a social wristband that allows young people check-in to program locations, and to trade their personal profiles that they have established when they tap their wristbands together. "When the people touch these wrist bands, it also shares time and location where they first met each other. That becomes a log of their experience, and they take that home with them. They can continue friendships long after the event," Kirby explained.

Joey Quick is a full-time scouting employee – the program adviser for the jamboree —and he and Kirby communicate at least once every few hours in the months/weeks/days leading up to the event. "The attributes that Josh brought to our team are numerous," Quick said. "The key things I would highlight are organization, communications and recruiting/delegation.

"Organizationally, Josh has been instrumental in helping to keep our program service groups focused on the key milestones we need to ensure the jamboree program is prepared for the arrival of the Scouts. Josh helped in developing the organizational structure, assisted in creating collaborative teams when multiple program teams need to come together, and has coordinated our program team planning meetings," Quick said.

All of which comes full circle back to teaching. "Actually, in many ways, my graduate education and my preparation to become a professor and work with students and faculty and the programs at Penn State, has helped me understand better what my experience was as a youth was in the program," Kirby said. 

"When the first three words you say in the Scout Oath is 'on my honor,' the idea of honor becomes personally integrated; it's not a separate thing, it's not something you have to think of doing. ‘On my honor I will do my best’ combined together with the Scout Motto of ‘Be Prepared’ demonstrates that I have personally accepted, personally ingested and integrated this value of wanting to be focused on other people’s well-being more than I'm focused on myself," he said. 

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Last Updated July 17, 2019