'A different world:' Ham radio points East Elementary students to STEM concepts

Feb. 16—PENDLETON — As several students huddled around him, Mike Cook strained to hear a clear voice through crackling static coming from the speaker of his ham radio console.

"Some people can't hear as well as others," Cook told them. "They may just get on and start calling. Usually, people will be nice enough to say, 'Excuse me, you're interrupting a QSO, or a conversation."

The etiquette tip was part of several informal presentations that Cook and Tom Cole, members of the Madison County Amateur Radio Club, made to fifth and sixth graders at East Elementary School on Thursday as part of a two-day learning experience. Cook and Cole, who also drive buses for South Madison Community School Corp., approached East Elementary administrators with the idea earlier in the school year.

"I thought it would be an opportunity for them just to be exposed to another piece of communication that goes back pretty far," said Tony Candiano, principal at East Elementary School. "It was pretty useful during World War II, and we've talked about that. The students have gotten pretty excited."

A total of eight classes were scheduled to take part in the presentations Thursday and Friday. Cook and Cole, each manning a ham radio receiver, discussed procedures for contacting other users and beginning conversations. They explained how different frequencies connect transmitters in different parts of the world using signals that bounce off the earth's ionosphere.

"If the power around the world went out, we could still communicate around the world," said fifth grader Jaxon Scott. "They've talked to people in Asia, Mexico and other places. It's interesting, and it's pretty cool."

The special program was part of a club roundup event allowing schools all over the country to exchange contact information over specific frequencies. Points were to be awarded based on the locations of contacts made, with certificates awarded to all the participating schools.

The experience, officials said, was meant to connect students with STEM concepts from a different angle.

"I think they were able to make some connections and understand that there is a different world out there, and that the uses (for ham radio technology) are far-reaching," said Sarah Watson, a K-6 STEM teacher at East Elementary. "People still use it now, even when we have all this (other) technology at our fingertips."

Cook, who has been a licensed ham radio operator for about 20 years, said the opportunity to touch on ham radio's varied applications was valuable.

"I'd like the kids to get interested in all of it," he said. "Electronics, science, geography, history...even math is involved. If we work on our antennas out there, we have math formulas to figure out actual lengths for our antennas. That's important."

Watson noted that a side conversation on ham radio etiquette — understanding the jargon of call signs, frequencies and other features — was an unexpected bonus. She said some students were surprised to learn that operators could lose their licenses for using off-color language on the air.

"One of the things that we talk about all the time is digital citizenship, and the etiquette online," Watson said. "That was something I thought they could easily relate to because we talk about it all the time."

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