How we get kids (and parents) interested in Ham Radio

Barry, K2JV, wrote this for the ARRL’s Contact, an e-mail newsletter for PIOs:

The New Providence Amateur Radio Club of New Jersey has been actively introducing kids to Amateur Radio for about 5 years. The activities and events which we have mentored have been a source of considerable pleasure for the senior club members involved, but also require a considerable effort, both physical and mental.

Our formal programs include:

  • Kids Day twice a year, in cooperation with two township supported Recreation Commissions
  • Operating a GOTA station at Field Day
  • Running an after school Ham Radio Club at an elementary school
  • A program of “Ham Radio at Summer Camp,” also a Recreation Commission function
  • Mentoring ARISS QSOs, 4 contacts at various school levels.
  • Kids march with the Club in the annual Memorial Day Parade. They carry the Club banner and each has an HT on 2 meters using the callsign of and supervised by one of our licensed members.

These activities have given us an “insider’s look” at the behavior and interests of children, mostly of elementary and middle school age. Most of these programs include on the air operating on HF, and sometimes on VHF.

For programs of longer duration like the school radio club or at summer camp, it’s usually pretty easy to identify those kids who show a more than passing interest, and get them right on HF. It is frequently difficult to establish reliable, clear communication on 20 or 40 meters. The stations contacted are uniformly interested in speaking with the kids, but most operators don’t know how to speak with kids. The simple concept of speaking slowly, asking only one question at a time, and making that question something within the comprehension of a child, is something that most of us need a little time to grasp. The control op and mentor usually has to start the kids asking questions which will engage the person on the other end. Such questions include: “Do you have any pets?” or “Do you have any children?” or “What flavor ice cream is your favorite?” This clues the operator on the far end as to how to respond and how to ask a question which a kid can answer.

When we do “Ham Radio at Summer Camp” we are in competition with all the other activities which are going on. It soon becomes quite apparent however, that there are a few kids who will stay at the Ham Station for the whole day, and a few more who keep coming back – generally with the question “can I try it again?” These are the ones we are looking for to bring up the subject of Ham Radio at their schools and at home. We have prompted them when they return to school after the summer, and when their teacher asks “What did you do this summer?” to respond “Oh, I just spoke with a rancher in Arizona who raises Buffalo” or “I talked to a man who was in the jungle in Panama” or for our ARISS communicators “Oh, all I did was have a conversation with an astronaut on the International Space Station!”

One of the most important values of Ham Radio which we try to get through to parents and adults is that it teaches their kids how to speak with an adult who is not a family member, in sentences not monosyllables, and how to behave in the presence of a stranger. The science, technology, geography, etc. which they are learning even if they don’t know it – is purely collateral.

For Kids Day, in order to insure plenty of contacts we usually have a few “ringers” listening on a previously selected VHF repeater or simplex frequency. That way when a kid calls CQ he is likely to get an immediate and clear answer (kids have a short interest span). After that, it’s usually possible to get them on HF to make exchanges with other kids. Even the youngest, grasp the procedures for Kids Day almost immediately. We help them with a “crib sheet” which has the exchange written out, and they recognize the fact that the station contacted is sending them similar information. If conditions are poor, we have some “ringers” waiting on 20 meters too.

For an ARISS QSO, we have used “ringers” in preparing our Student Communicators. We usually do this on VHF simplex and one of our experienced Club Members becomes a “Simulated Astronaut.” This allows the kids not only to get familiar with the exchange protocol which will be used, but also lets them practice the questions which they have made up for the astronaut, and change the question when they hear the answer. This is done under the supervision of the Control Operator for the QSO who is one of our “graduate students” having communicated with the ISS, obtained a ham license, but is still in Middle School or High School.

We have a few “internal rules” for our ARISS QSOs:

  1. It’s all kids. Everyone including the control operator is a “kid” meaning High School or younger.
  2. No adults are visible on the stage, at least not to the audience.
  3. It is advertised as “a conversation with an Astronaut” and the kids respond after their question is answered, thank the astronaut, and pass the microphone to the next communicator.
  4. We introduce them early on, to a Satellite Tracking Program and the NASA website, which they are urged to use at home.
  5. To get more kids involved we do manual antenna train and elevate, and manual Doppler correction. A separate group of kids (usually boys) want to do this.

My Summary
After 5 years a few generalities as related to Ham Radio can be observed:

  • Little girls like to talk to each other. We set them up in small groups, each group with a handitalkie. Using proper protocols and callsigns the groups play games with each other like “battleship” or some games using LEGO blocks, etc.
  • Little boys like to play with electronic toys and love Morse code. They use computer based Morse training programs and soon learn to recognize their names and the names of their buddies. We have them build code oscillator kits and make them work.
  • Neither sex has the capability to carry on a conversation with a stranger. They have not yet learned to initiate a conversation with an adult. They don’t have this problem with their peers.
  • Both sexes tend to answer questions with monosyllabic answers. They can be prompted to answer in sentences, to speak slowly and clearly, but if not supervised they revert to their original style.
  • Girls have a much longer social interest span than do the boys. This is true for social gatherings like the games and communication exercises. The boys will work on the code for a long time, but this is a more solitary activity.
  • Boys like the complexities of games and puzzles more than girls. When on the air we can get them involved in the competitive and contest activities.
  • All children function better in a structured, organized environment. If the Ham Radio environment is made to feel like school, they can relate to it and will behave as though they are in school. Since most of their teachers are female, they all have far less problem conversing on the air with a YL (preferably a grandma) than with an OM of any age.

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