All great things start with a dream and so does this story. Amateur radio is something that has been around my family since the 1930’s, starting with a great uncle, Charlie W4KBR. Charlie had tried to introduce ham radio to his brother, his sons, my dad and a few other family members but none ever got ‘bit by the bug’. Our family lost Charlie in 1976 and his dream of another ham in the family went unfulfilled. But in 1979 a great nephew (me) got bit by the radio bug and another ham was in the family! One dream finally fulfilled, albeit a couple of years late, and another just beginning to take root.
It took several years of hands on learning to get comfortable enough to ‘teach’ amateur radio. But mentoring and teaching starts early in an active and busy amateur radio avocation. One of the greatest benefits of an amateur radio license is the comraderie and experience of the ‘old timers’ and any ham worth his salt will lend a helping hand to an inquisitive ‘newby’. This ham was fortunate to be introduced to some amazing ham operators from all over the USA. The amount of information received over a couple of years was daunting.
The first opportunity at ‘teaching’ amateur radio came when my daughter was in first grade and I approached the principal of her school to introduce these little ones to morse code. While it was well received and the kids learned to send their names in CW, the age group wasn’t really appropriate to pursue an amateur radio license.
Over the years there were other opportunities to introduce radio in the classroom but all were a one day affairs and nothing ever came of it all.
Honestly, there were times that it seemed that no one in education was interested in the magic of radio. Every administrator that I approached was cordial but not excited, at least not as excited as me! And of course the cost of equipment, maintenance, liability concerns about antennas and towers always seemed to kill the deal. But then along came cub scouts, with my sons!
One of the badges a scout can earn has to do with ‘secret codes’. What a great opportunity to introduce these little guys to morse code. The guys had a great time but there was no real avenue to get to real radio here. That opportunity came with Boy Scouts and the radio merit badge. This was a real opportunity to get some licensed amateurs and the scout master wanted to sit in on the class too! After a six week course and a lot of home study there were seven scouts that earned their radio merit badge AND six earned their amateur radio licenses. This was the event that re-peaked the interest of getting radio in the classroom again. This was also the time period that the ARRL introduced the ‘Big Project’ program.
The next step was to discuss the program with the principal of the school. She was very interested in the program, especially when I could explain that there would be a negligible cost to the school. The first year of the St Aloysius program was a smashing success. We applied for the Big Project grant and had over 20 fourth through eighth graders coming to play on the radio. This was an after school program (through its entire ten years) and all the kids would take their time to do something different and fun. There were several times that parents would sit in and listen as we explored the magic of radio. On day one the class measured and built a 40 meter dipole, tossed it out the window, stretched between a couple of anchor points and proceeded to talk around the country. In the second year of our program, the ARRL provided a Big Project grant and the Bullitt ARS (ky4ky.com) provided sponsorship locally. Several local amateurs provided a tower and yagi to complement the antennas that came with the ARRL grant. As the program progressed, the students participated in fox hunts, the school club roundup (winning the middle school category one year), building antennas and even venturing into an EME contact attempt (still in the works).
My expectations were high from the beginning. While the number of new hams has not met expectations, the cursory benefits have been exceptional. Parents and teachers have been exceptionally supportive. It would have been outstanding to have a teacher or two earn their own licenses but the other forms of support were evident. For five years, any student that earned their amateur license would automatically improve their science grade one full letter grade. The Spanish teacher (Mr Miller) enjoyed speaking with South American hams, via third party rules, in Spanish and the kids would chime in occasionally as well. One child started as a fourth grader with a bit of a speech impediment. Her activities on the air and in the classroom gave her the confidence to overcome the speech issue.
The side benefits of amateur radio in the classroom are phenomenal. These students learned the art of conversation. They learned ‘where in the world is that place’ first hand. They learned that foxes can be hiding in an old mouse case hidden in the computer lab or in a hole by the baseball field. They were regaled with stories from hams as young as 97 and met other students around the country. These guys were challenged with math well beyond their grade level and how magic wireless can really be.
Realizing that the first ‘kids’ in the class will be graduating college this year and that St Aloysius is closing due to rising costs and decreasing enrollment, gives me cause for reflection. Looking back on some of the ‘successes’ from radio in the classroom would take more pages than allowed here. Three of the original students will be graduating college this year, one broadcast major and two engineering majors, all three attending on academic scholarships. One of the more studious girls in the class will be attending MIT in the fall and another to Yale (full academic scholarships). So many of the kids that ventured through the ham radio class have blossomed into confident young people, able to communicate effectively and efficiently. While most of these radio class kids did not achieve their license during class time, the seed has been planted and like so many others may rediscover radio years down the road.
For now, the St Aloysius Radio Club has to relegate itself to a social networking site. All the guys and girls will be attending different schools in the fall, but all wanted to stay in touch and keep learning about radio. It was heart warming and wrenching, during the last day of radio class, all the kids wanted the program to come to their ‘new’ schools. And in usual ham radio fashion, the old timer has extended the hand of friendship to the newby, and said whatever you need, just ask.
So if you are interested in getting amateur radio in the classroom, start by introducing the staff, administration and kids to the magic of radio. Have all your ducks in a row. Be able to explain the possible costs and the benefits, especially the side benefits. And be prepared to put a lot of your heart, soul and time into the process, for if you truly love something and want it to continue, you must be willing to train your replacement.
Originally published in Monitoring Times September 2012 reprinted with permission of the author Buddy Sohl KC4WQ