Basehor-Linwood students connect with world thanks to amateur radios
Four high school students gathered around a table, opening envelopes to reveal what looked like postcards from Florida, California, Delaware, Michigan and Russia, among other places.
“It’s like Christmas two weeks early!” said freshman Spencer Brown.
The students weren’t examining postcards, but instead cards stamped with call signs from amateur radio operators from around the United States and overseas. The students, members of the Basehor-Linwood High School Amateur Radio Club, had talked with each of the operators using radios set up in front of the high school about six weeks before.
The club began this school year, sponsored by BLHS special education teacher Forrest Brandt and supported by members of the Pilot Knob Amateur Radio Club of Leavenworth. In a time when people can communicate instantly over long distances via the Internet or cell phones, the young amateur radio operators — or “hams,” as operators call themselves — at BLHS are embracing an older mode of communication that allows them to meet people around the world and learn valuable skills.
The group’s first event was the School Club Roundup, a weeklong event in October sponsored by the American Radio Relay League, a national amateur radio organization. The students spent the week contacting as many other operators around the world as they could, using radios and a 33-foot-tall antenna provided by Bob Kimbrell, a member of the Pilot Knob club.
About 20 students got into the action, repeating the letters “CQ,” followed by the club’s callsign, “KD0MVT,” to signal that they were searching for other operators to communicate with. Club members said it was a great time, and not just because they were excused from some of their classes to participate.
“It was pretty cool,” said freshman Jacob Hall. “I don’t otherwise get to talk to people outside of Kansas.”
Freshman Jacob Zamora said he was used to chatting with people from other places online, but actually speaking with them through the microphone made him a bit nervous.
“I was scared to speak to people,” Zamora said. “I’m used to typing to them. So I stuttered.”
But Kimbrell butted in with words of encouragement: “You did great,” he said.
Over the course of the week, the students made contact with more than 50 operators in 23 states, as well as Russia, the Czech Republic and Ontario, Canada. Some operators were with other clubs participating in the event, while others just happened to hear the BLHS club’s calls.
One operator they reached was broadcasting from near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he works as a space shuttle technician. Another was broadcasting under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to celebrate the arch’s 45th anniversary.
Afterward, the students sent out cards to each of the operators, complete with a sketch of the BLHS building drawn by freshman Nathan Lucas, asking them to send cards back in return. About half of them replied, and the cards are displayed on a poster outside Brandt’s classroom.
Students in the club said they joined because it sounded fun, but the hobby has several practical applications, as well. Brown said the technology would provide a “failsafe” in case of a particular kind of emergency.
“If the zombie apocalypse happens, you designate your own frequency and then stick with it, and it never fails,” he said.
Brown was joking, of course, but Kimbrell said he had a point. Radio communication is indeed quite stable, he said, because it is not tied down by wires, towers or satellites like other modes of communication. The infrastructure required is the earth’s ionosphere.
In fact, according to the ARRL, the Federal Communications Commission first began granting amateur radio licenses to establish a network of communications experts who could spring to action in case of an emergency.
Even if they’re never called upon in case of zombies, amateur radio operators also pick up skills in mathematics and science that are attractive to employers in engineering and other fields, Kimbrell said. Amateur radio enthusiasts often educate themselves about the technical workings of the equipment they use and the radio waves they send out, he said.
“It’s really an elite group of scientific-minded people,” Kimbrell said. “That’s what makes it such an interesting hobby.”
Kimbrell said he first jumped into amateur radio at age 13 when he strapped a radio to the handlebars of his Schwinn Continental bicycle as he ran a paper route, and his experience helped him land a job with a California utility company where he worked for 25 years.
“Radio to me has always been kind of a magic thing,” Kimbrell said. “You can take a tiny amount of power and send it halfway across the globe.”
The students in the club have been studying the nuts and bolts of radio operation since the roundup in October, preparing to take a test for a low-level operator’s license from the FCC. Right now, the students can only operate a radio under the supervision of someone with a license.
Brandt received a $527 grant from the Basehor-Linwood Education Foundation last month for some books and other resources, and he has applied for a grant from the ARRL that would allow the club to purchase an antenna and radios and set up a permanent station operating out of BLHS.
Kimbrell said that if the club can set up equipment and earn operator licenses, the students could participate in a number of regular events allowing them to contact other clubs and students.
Brown said the club presented the students an opportunity that many people don’t come across, which made it all the more exciting.
“It’s kind of a rare hobby,” Brown said. “Not everyone has ham radio antennas in their backyard.”