HAM Radio and Homeschooling: A Good Fit
by Chris Mahar
"CQ CQ CQ This is KB7UPR", the boys called over and over, but the 10-meter band was dead. They were using my ham radio station to try to make a contact as part of a class to help homeschoolers get their first radio license. We made several local contacts on other bands so it didn't matter to the boys that they couldn't get through on 10 meters. They just wanted to have fun fooling around with my radios. Over the summer I offered the class to our homeschool support group and four teens signed up. All four got their license by the end of the summer.
Ham radio offers many educational and social benefits and may fit well into your homeschool curriculum. Amateur radio requires math and science and is very hands-on. Few will accuse a ham radio operator of being weak in science. And you can learn and get a call-sign right alongside your child. We've met two other homeschool families where a mom or dad earned their license along with their child.
But what about socialization? Ham radio may seem like a hermit's hobby, sitting alone in a room with a bunch of electronic equipment, but it's actually very social. It's all about talking to other people on radio.
There is a distinct protocol and set of manners used on ham radio, most of which you learn by listening and making contacts. It can also be a link to the history of radio, which can lead you to many great stories from the early days of radio. Many dedicated hams are ex-military radio operators with some great stories to tell. Most amateur radio operators leap at the chance to talk on the radio with young people, enjoying the opportunity to encourage them in the hobby.
Aside from the obvious educational benefits of ham radio, there are other less obvious benefits. There are amateur radio operators are all over the world and students can learn about and build relationships with people from many countries. The international nature of ham radio dovetails wonderfully with studies of history and geography. Collecting QSL cards from around the country and around the world is a popular ham hobby. The hobby can lead to opportunities for volunteer service and even a chance to help with emergency communications in a disaster.
One of the best things about helping children get into the ham radio hobby is how well it connects them across generations. Many hams are seniors, many are veterans and all are interesting people with a story to tell. Through ham radio my daughter Pearl has worked with WW2 vets, engineers, Mensa members, teachers, volunteer coordinators and event managers. She's attended business meetings and had the opportunity to introduce the hobby to hundreds of children near her age.
In an emergency, being a ham radio gives you a chance to rush to the rescue and use your license and equipment to aid in critical communications. Ham radio operators have been involved in disaster communications since the earliest days of the hobby. In shipwrecks, tornadoes, earthquakes, or hurricanes strike often the first communications in and out are through ham radio. Red Cross organizations in many areas work closely with ham radio operators.
Ham radio has afforded us opportunities to serve the community in other ways. My 10 year old daughter Pearl and I have volunteered over 100 hours at our local science center introducing ham radio to some of the 500,000 visitors to the center each year. Most of the visitors are school children on field trips. Pearl's interest in ham radio has earned her girl scout awards for service hours, and a family membership at the science center. If your student is a Boy Scout, earning a ham radio license will take them a long way toward earning their Radio Merit Badge.
In order to get your Technician class license you must take a test. You do not have to learn Morse Code. And don’t let aversion to tests scare you because there's good news. All the questions are public. The test will consists of 35 questions from a 350 question exam bank. You must get 26 right to pass. What this means is you can pre-study all the questions you will see on the test. You can build your own practice exams and take them when and where you wish. We did a lot of studying and practice testing in the car. When my daughter missed questions, we would discuss the concepts underlying the questions until she understood them, then be sure she wouldn't miss that question, or those like it again. The exam is also available for free on the web and on commercially available software. My favorite free website for practice exams is AA9PW.com, which we used extensively when getting Pearl ready for the exam.
We prepared by reading a chapter in the text, going through the exam questions for that chapter, and occasionally taking practice exams. I would not allow Pearl to take the exam until she was consistently passing practice exams. After she had passed a dozen practice exams, sitting for the real exam was a simple thing for her. This is also a great way to alleviate test-jitters.
The ham exam is closed book and tightly proctored. It's given by volunteers called Volunteer Exam Coordinators or V.E.C.s. They want you to succeed, but aren't allowed to help much beyond giving you a new pencil. Still, they're on your side.
There really is no substitute for the book 'Now You're Talking' published by the Amateur Radio Relay League. This is the go-to book for anyone working on their first ham radio license. I required each person in our co-op to buy the book, bring it to class and do the lessons and sample test questions. It was the basis for our classes.
Self study isn't the only way to get ready for the exam. You can find a class being taught in your area or you can find an Elmer. An Elmer is an experienced veteran radio operator who mentors you through your licensing process and early radio experience. Finding an Elmer can be intimidating, but eventually proves rewarding long after you've achieved your license. A good Elmer builds a personal relationship with you and guides you through difficult concepts. He'll teach if you want teaching, or just listen. He may suggest study ideas. He'll definitely advise on which radio you should buy, and chastise you for bad operating practices if he catches you at them. A wise Elmer gives you something to shoot for. He lets you use his radios to learn good operating techniques, and help you overcome microphone fright. He'll come up with novel ways to explain difficult and obscure concepts.
Shop for an Elmer, and be up front about what you want. It isn't difficult but can be scary. Try out this line, "I'm looking for someone to help me work on my first ham radio license. Can you help?" Start by visiting a local ham radio club meeting. The more enthusiastic you are, the more interest and help you will get from an elmer. Ask around for someone who helps others get their license. Your local science museum or electronics store are another good place to look.
Any way you do it though, you'll end up buying the book. It costs about $20 no matter where you buy it. Radio Shack carries it, or you can get it from Amazon.com.
There is no lower age limit for the ham exam, but there is some math, and it's nice to have a good idea how multiple choice tests work. I am working with Alyssa, my 8 year old daughter to prepare for the exam, but it may be a year or more before she has the math concepts down. Ham radio is not for every kid. It takes the right mixture of geekiness and intensity. If your child likes taking things apart to see why they used to work, if they like gadgets and playing with new technology or if they like the thought of being able to help in an emergency, then ham radio may be a good fit.