It can be one of the most rewarding things you ever do. It is essential to the continuation of our amateur radio heritage. It can shape the future of amateur radio and even the future of individuals.
Elmer a kid.
All too often in today’s amateur radio media we hear or read complaints from experienced operators about poor on-air operations and incompetency committed by newer hams. My personal experience has been that while on-air errors and interference-by-ignorance may be increasing somewhat, they are still relatively rare. But we must realize that with record numbers of hams on the air the bands are going to be more crowded than in the past, and we should endeavor to be at our best to courteously share the spectrum. To do so requires operational competence.
So, how about let’s stop complaining and instead take corrective action, each at our local, personal level. To improve our ham community we must improve our ham operators. Get out there and elmer a young person and instill in him or her the values, the standards, and the competencies that our amateur radio community deserves. Let’s engineer our future!
“I don’t know any kids,” you say.
“Kids aren’t interested in ham radio these days,” you claim.
“Even if I found a batch of fascinated kids, what would I do with them?” you ask.
It’s easier than you may think.
- Eager-to-learn youngsters are everywhere.
- The ARRL reports a record number of FCC licensed hams achieved in 2012 – nearly 710,000 of us – so somebody must be interested and a fair number of them being kids.
- And there are a million different ways to elmer and things to do in ham radio. It’s hard to go wrong.
Where are these kids?
Most hams probably do know at least a few kids – a son or daughter, a nephew or niece, a neighbor or a friend’s young ones. Have you ever asked them if they’d like to learn about radio, electronics, computers, science, engineering, geography, international communications, community service, emergency preparedness, Morse Code, and the myriad other things involved in ham radio? If not, perhaps you should start there with a simple invitation and demonstration of amateur radio technology.
If you really don’t know any kids, there are many youth organizations that would likely be very pleased to have you step up and volunteer your elmering services and provide opportunities to their membership. For instance, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is a prime youth organization involved in ham radio. Scouting offers a radio merit badge in which amateur radio is a prominent portion of the curriculum, and there is no shortage of BSA troops looking for radio merit badge counselors to instruct these young men. Find a troop in your local area and contact its adult leadership. BSA also sponsors an annual Jamboree On The Air (JOTA), a weekend on which scouts and amateur operators and clubs pair up to make contact with other scouts and hams around the world. And you can always use your imagination to set the hook, promoting amateur radio with these youngsters in other ways, as we’ll examine in a moment.
Other youth organizations that may be interested in ham radio include Explorer programs, Venture Scouts, 4H Clubs, church youth groups, and middle- or high school activity clubs. Many of these local groups may never have considered making amateur radio part of their program, so perhaps a discussion with adult leadership and an introductory radio demonstration would be a good starting point. Some groups and especially schools have amateur radio clubs established in which your knowledge and expertise would be readily welcomed in helping to properly train new members. If you’re involved with Field Day, invite local youth groups to your Field Day operation and guide them along, providing on-air experiences and introductions to any young hams who may be involved already. Or, welcome the group to your own shack for a brief introduction to our hobby.
Some amateur radio clubs also have youth auxiliary organizations with which you may pitch in. [ARRL – Find a Club] One of the most successful examples of this kind of group is featured in the accompanying video, the Boulder Amateur Radio Club Juniors (BARC Jr.’s) organization. Ellie, NØQCX, and her husband Rip, NVØM, have produced more than 200 superbly trained young operators over the past 20 years. Their training philosophy and elmering methods are such that the young licensees they producereally get it, and their continuing program promotes competent advancement to General Class and Extra Class licensing over time. I was very impressed with the BARC Jr.’s during a recent visit in which I provided a Technician Class lesson for their newer members, and we’re very proud to have BARC Jr.’s using HamRadioSchool.com books and online materials as primary references for the Juniors. (See the video of my lesson and a chat with Ellie.)
Setting the Hook
Computers. Video games. Tablet devices. Cell phones. 24/7 kids TV. The Internet. And the list goes on.
Granted, with all of the technology-based entertainment and brain-wasters available to kids these days it can seem a daunting task to interest them in transceivers, amps, and antennas. It sometimes requires a little ingenuity to set the hook and get that initial intrigue with radio technology spinning in young heads. But it can be done!
One of the most effective forces in nature for young people is peer influence. Ellie and the BARC Jr.’s use this principle, and I have seen its magic myself when teaching my club’s Technician License Class and most particularly in helping to get young Boy Scouts licensed. Two or more kids, especially friends or associates, getting into radio together seems to promote success much more than with an isolated singleton. Sure, kids can get one another spun up and excited, getting a little silly sometimes, but that’s the point! Let them get excited about being able to talk on the radio to each other, about having a youth net, about getting a shack established! Let them help one another learn, even with a little friendly competition. In fact, a good elmer willpromote this kind of excitement among students.
Additionally, leverage their existing interests. If a kid expresses an interest in computers perhaps a hook-setting introduction could be a digital modes demonstration. PSK31 mode or packet radio can serve, including Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) – show the web based position reports of mobile stations, such as on the APRS.fi web site, and explain what’s going on. Ask them to imagine how they and their friends could use APRS day-to-day and let them scheme on things. Then conduct an IRLP or EchoLink contact with a distant location noting how the Internet and VoIP is used, and allow your young students to chat third party with another operator. If you enjoy home-brewing circuits, show them your shop or shack where you do your building, and (with parental permissions) let them try their hand at soldering a PC board or two. Explain that they can learn to build their own custom circuits to perform all sorts of electronic tasks.
If a kid loves outdoor activities – and who doesn’t? – explain how ham radio goes hand-in-hand with hiking, backpacking, bicycling, and camping. If you live in a mountainous region introduce them to Summits On The Air (SOTA). Explain radiosport such as foxhunting and some of the interesting variations on that competitive activity. If you’re really motivated perhaps you can help to conduct an activity like this specifically for youth.
Here’s an example: For a couple of years the Boy Scout troop that I am affiliated with has held an annual GeoFox RadioSport Rally. You can read my QST Magazine article about the details of the event, but it was a made-for-boys jaunt through a rugged forest course, land navigating with GPS receivers and maps, foxhunting with home-built antennas and HT radios, seeking hidden treasures and hidden transmitters, deciphering secret CW codes and helpful hints, and racing against their peers and the clock for cool prizes and personal pride! When we started GeoFox we had 10 brand new scout hams, and we have more than doubled that number in our troop alone primarily as a result of the fun and excitement generated by GeoFox. While it requires an investment of time, planning, and effort, the rewards are well worth it. Maybe you’re the right ham to coordinate an event like this in your area, perhaps starting by coupling experienced, supervising operators with scout teams of GeoFoxers, and stir up some interest in ham licensing among the group! And there are many “levers of control” with this type of event to make it more challenging or easier, longer or shorter in duration, and with various rewards and incentives for fun and learning. Adjust conditions wisely to the age and capabilities of the group, and ask for the advice of the parents, teachers, or adult leaders of the group.
However, realize that you are not likely to catch all the fish in the lake by casting just once. It may require a few attempts to get just a nibble or two. And when you do get interest from a group or a set of kids, your catch may be only a small percentage of the whole batch to which you gave your pitch, or perhaps only one or two individuals. That’s fine! Starting small and developing your elmer skills over time and doing a fine job is always better than going big immediately and finding you’ve taken on more than you can handle with quality! Remember, the goal is competent operators, not gobs of poor ones.
Reeling Them In
Once the initial interest and excitement have been established a successful elmer must follow through with good instruction, keeping things appealing but disciplined, and sometimes exercising a bit of patience with young ones. Every kid is different, and different techniques will work with different individuals. Try many approaches and activities and ideas – if only a fraction of them work well you’re adding to your elmering toolbox with each success, and before long you’ll have a chest full of proven methods from which to select. Keep a log of your lessons, noting what worked, what didn’t, and how you might improve the next time.
In our scout radio program and local club Technician License Class, we have found that there is one overwhelming factor that predicts success of a youngster: Parental support. If you can hook a parent along with their child, and if the parent and child learn together with you, study together at home, and practice exam questions together, your success is nearly assured. During my visit to the BARC Jr.’s there were many parents present as well, encouraging the children, learning along with them, and keeping a lid on behavior once in a while as required. But even if mom or dad is unwilling or unable to stick around during elmering sessions you can be very successful with a majority of youngsters.
With younger children you’ll need to conduct brief, bite-sized learning sessions that fit with the attention span. For kids under 12 years an hour is probably more than enough for a single elmering session. With teenagers you can likely keep them engaged for the hour, perhaps a little longer if the activity is fun or absorbing, such as a hands-on home-brewing project. Use your imagination and find ways to relate difficult or technical concepts with simplicity – some of theHamRadioSchool.com materials can help with that. In my lesson to the BARC Jr.’s you’ll see a couple of my goofy techniques, but you don’t have to be like that clown. Find your own ways that fit your own personality and that work for the students. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and don’t be afraid to fail! Be persistent, be creative, and simply do your best.
Materials for Elmering
You may be perfectly comfortable constructing your own custom curriculum for kids. You don’t have to be too structured about it, and initially it’s often good to just go with the flow, introducing a variety of fun things and letting the kids guide their own learning with questions and comments and wide eyes. But one way or another you’ll want to ensure that you’re covering the material that is necessary to produce a competent young ham and that’s necessary to pass the VE exam!
The HamRadioSchool.com Technician License Course was constructed with young people and the less technically oriented student in mind, but with the goal of providing real understanding for on-air competence. Of course, we highly encourage the use of our materials for elmering young prospective operators and helping them to really get it! The sections of our learning system are bite-sized chunks that most young people can handle in one sitting, and we suggest that you supplement our book and web-based materials with your own teaching techniques to include hands-on activities, operating experience, and question-and-answer sessions. That’s how the BARC Jr.’s are so successful, and how our local scouting radio program has similarly produced superb young operators.
Here’s a suggested summary framework for elmering kids:
- Work with more than one youngster at a time if possible, and with parents included when feasible.
- Keep elmering sessions to a reasonable time for the age of your student, but conduct them regularly, at least weekly, and don’t try to cram too much into any one session! Take your time, be patient, instill competence!
- Assign HamRadioSchool.com Technician License Course book sections to read in advance. Usually just one or two at a time, or possibly an entire chapter with older youth.
- Also suggest advanced review of the assigned sections’ online videos, audio files, internet links, and text supplements from our web site’s ‘Technician Learning Media’ page, including section quizzes of related VE question pool items either online or with our mobile app for quizzing and practice examination.
- Alternatively, review these online materials with your students during elmering, using them as starting material for Q&A sessions or follow-on activities.
- Try to provide at least one fun activity or engaging hands-on event for each elmering session.
- This may often be on-air practice applying the lesson material and concepts.
- This may be elmer ‘show and tell’ time where kids can handle radio gear and components.
- This may be an educational exercise such as those you saw in the accompanying video with BARC Jr.’s.
- This may be a hands-on activity such as soldering components, building a simple antenna, pounding brass in learning CW, or trying out foxhunting techniques.
- This may be a ‘field trip’ visit to another operator’s shack or into the field for demonstration of capabilities that you don’t yet have in your own shack [i.e. digital modes, mobile ops, DX SSB, amateur TV, a SOTA activation, etc.]
- This might be a thought experiment in which kids have to dream up ways they can use ham radio in their lives and include some of the lesson concepts in the scenario.
- This might even be a trip out for an ice cream or a soda at which quizzes or practice questions are issued or concepts are simply reviewed in conversation. Have some fun and get to know your students!
- As your students advance, check their knowledge and competence prior to VE examination.
- Use our mobile app to issue properly weighted, full 35-question practice exams to your students and review their performance, noting areas for improvement or review.
- Conduct group or individual review sessions where you ask questions and seek explanations and answers from the students – give them a chance to show you what they know, and reward correct responses with praise! [In our class we even toss candies to those who provide good answers to questions, but check with parents first, of course.]
- Encourage lots of self-directed practice examination outside of your elmering sessions.
- Conduct mock on-air QSOs with the students and confront them with new or difficult situations, and help them with proper behavior for handling the scenarios. Remember, built competence!
- When you think your kids are ready, arrange or point them to a VE session. Go with them if you can as a show of support! Give them last minute encouragement and, when they succeed, welcome them to the ranks of amateur operators with hearty congratulations and praise… and an invite to come back very soon to get started on the General Class material! Oh, and don’t forget to see them through to that first radio and actually getting on the air.
And Finally, 73!
As currently licensed amateur operators we all share a responsibility to the next generation of operators who will carry on and preserve our traditions, our service, and the valuable communications and electronics knowledge collectively held. Do your part to pass it on.HamRadioSchool.com is here to help you, and you can call on us with your questions, comments, success stories, and even the failures. We’ll welcome your input.
Elmer a kid. Just try it. Help to bring up the next generation as competent operators who really get it – who really understand amateur radio. Good luck! 73
~WØSTU and the HamRadioSchool.com Staff