Starting a School Radio Club for Dummies

You’ve decided you’d like to help a local school start a radio club? Good for you! A school radio club is a great introduction to hands-on STEM learning opportunities and develops communication skills, worldwide friends, and a lifetime hobby. But where do you start?

When I got into this hobby, one thing I thought about was whether or not my high school had an amateur radio club that I just never knew about. There were many clubs and activities that I, for one reason or another, didn’t know about. When I looked closer, I didn’t find one existed then or now. Could I get one started though? I will take you on my journey in starting 2 school radio clubs in 2 separate school systems and the lessons I learned in doing so.

Where do I start?

First, you need to know that starting a school program is not something that can be accomplished in a short time period. Think more on the timeline of months up to a year. Our ambitions started very strong but there are many hurdles and obstacles that must be overcome first. Nothing major – just the natural progression of events and regulatory in a school system.

This is not a project to take on by yourself. You will need others to help with communications to school boards, attending school board meetings, and, most important of all, assisting with running of the new school club.

Another thing to consider is that your school radio club may need physical things to get going. Some, like radios, antennas, and materials to build equipment can be provided by yourself or donated by other club members. If you plan on introducing an educational element to the club, and I would highly recommend it given it is a school club, you may also want Technician class books.

Funding

Our local radio club is an established 501c(3) and was willing to help with grant writing to several non-profits that provide funding for civic and amateur radio activities. I will say that this is a great way to get funding to help ease any financial burden on the already stressed school system and/or parents. Some grant deadlines are far in the future and may require writing skills you will need to seek out. If you plan to get funding to help start the school radio club, keep the award dates in mind for when you can actually start activities.

Prioritize your goals with the school radio club and put those items needed to achieve those goals. We started out with W5YI Technician Books, some handheld radios, a mobile radio to use as a base station, a power supply, and a case to hold the mobile radio. The rest needed for the station will be supplied or sourced using our sponsoring radio club.

Use a writing assistant or tools like Candid to help with writing your grant. Keep in mind through the theme of the grant that your focus is on not only starting a school club, but one that can help kids augment their current school learning with hands-on activities that give a lifelong thirst for knowledge and community.

Barring any imminent deadlines for proposals, don’t submit for any grants just yet.

School Board

I would love to say that every school system will welcome a new club with open arms. Truth is, schools are stretched thin with all of their resources. You will more than likely need a sponsor from within the school for your club, which means that you will first need to convince an already busy teacher or administrator to devote even more of their time with your venture. A science teacher would be great for this as they will understand most of the concepts you will teach the kids but any teacher will work.

If you cannot secure a sponsor, all hope is not lost. Still continue forward with your next step – contacting your school board to get on their agenda. In some cases, just getting a meeting with the school superintendent will work as he likely sets the agenda. If you are unsure of who to contact, reaching out to any of the school board members should be able to get you in touch with whoever is necessary to get on the agenda. Patience is key here since it is likely you will not be in the very next agenda.

Your presentation to the school board needs to be very precise in what you want to accomplish. What are your goals? Who will benefit? Who will support the club? What activities will they do? Don’t anticipate time to do a full-on demonstration with radios. The school board, as with all others in the school system, have limited time. Their agenda is likely already full and you may only have 15-20 minutes to convince them that a radio club is in the kids’, and school system’s, best interests. If you can provide a write-up they can read ahead of time, that would be ideal. A 4-5 slide presentation to supplement is also useful, but not required.

How do you start a school club then?

The logistics of actually starting a club within your local school system will vary from system to system. You may need to come up with permission slips for parents to sign, ways of communicating with kids and parents alike, days and times to meet, scheduling around other school activities and sports, plan a call-out meeting to get new members, and structure of the new club.

Your thoughts and dreams for this new club may or may not include anything that could be considered “dangerous” at any level. Or, you may decide to bring the kids into the world of through-hole soldering and building instead of buying. Even if you end up buying all equipment, you will still be communicating with local and worldwide operators. Parents may want to have a bit more say in all of the above so ask the school superintendent or principal whether permission slips are required.

I know the easy way of communicating with the kids would be to put a radio in their hands. You can get there eventually, but starting out you will need a way to communicate with them and their parents. Our school uses an app called “Remind” to communicate with clubs and special field trips. A group text may also work but seek other means as not all kids will have a cell phone.

Teachers and administrators are not the only busy ones in a school system. Kids can be active in many other clubs and sports. Your request of their time will need to work around all other things going on in their lives. Take all of this into consideration for discussion during a call-out meeting for kids and parents alike to come see what your new club will entail.

A call-out meeting is generally a place for prospective members to learn more about the new club and become members and can be a critical component to starting your club. You can have literature and graphics/advertisements but you’re starting a radio club. Let’s set up radios! My recommendation would be to get local operators on a repeater ready to talk to kids if they wish. Also have a couple of HF stations for digital ops and SSB voice. Think of it like a mini Field Day! Our call-out meeting also included several foxhunts with homemade tape measure Yagi antennas and an attempt at using the cross-band repeater on the ISS. Show the kids and parents what all amateur radio can be about!

You and your team will be a core piece of this club being successful. You will help plan activities and oversee the safe operation of all equipment. You should also consider putting the kids through a Technician class and will need support there. All of this requires teamwork; however, you will not be leading the club. The club’s structure should include the normal leadership positions of President, Vice President, Treasurer, and Secretary. You can decide to collect dues or not but these positions will lead the club with your guidance.

How do you keep a school club going?

Word of mouth! Your biggest recruiters are your members. Remind them to talk to their friends about the fun and cool things they are learning/doing in the club. Talk about the hidden transmitter locators or talking to astronauts. Sending pictures halfway across the world without the internet. Using digital modes to communicate with people in Antarctica!

Take any chance you can get to have club meetings or club activities in view of other students. You will get a lot of students coming up curious as to what you are doing. Use the opportunity to bring them in to the activity and see if they’d like to participate. Even having FRS radios handy could entice students over to just chat with their friends across the room.

Work with the school to find out when club days are. There are generally days at the beginning of the year where clubs set up for recruitment specifically. This is usually done during school hours like a lunch hour or free hour. This is also where it would be helpful to have support from other amateur radio operators to assist with demonstrations or discussions.

Lastly, keep in constant contact with school administrators. Principals, superintendents, and school boards like to see the positive impact you are having on the students. They can be a great ally in gaining more students to the club by assisting with announcements, pictures in their social media, school newsletters, local newspapers, etc.

Remember, keep the club fun, informative, and radio active!

Field Day 2022

Success!

Filed Day is an event hosted by the ARRL which has a purpose of bringing amateur radio operators together around the world and test their equipment. “Field Day” reminds me of dragging equipment out into the “field” and seeing what works and what doesn’t. The experimentation piece of radio that I really love!

Jim Wells observing operations while my son, Isaiah, sits behind the TV waiting for the action to begin.

In years past, I have erected and dreamed up some crazy ideas for antenna deployment. Probably my most proud was using a portable clothes line upside down as a tripod and an old power washer tube as a mast. Worked great! This year was a bit more traditional with just an end-fed halfwave antenna strung up in a tree. I did bring my “Go Kit” which includes my FT-891 for HF and Kenwood TM-281 for VHF.

I’m a builder and a tinkerer so getting in the field and seeing what I can make work with what I have gets me excited. Though my antenna deployments were rather tame, we did have an opportunity to bridge our computers together for a combined log using N3FJP’s Field Day logging software. This would have worked without a hitch had my iPhone been able to act more like a router rather than just a hotspot. Enter an old D-Link router the Farmland Conservation Club had identified as belonging to the radio club. Only problem: no power cord! KD9MAB and myself were able to tear her apart, rip the barrel plug (gently) from the board, solder power cables on, crimp on Anderson PowerPoles, and connect to our existing 12 volt system. Voila! We have wifi!

We used the popular logging software from N3FJP which also displays a map of our contacts.

Overall we were able to make some great contacts. 40 meters was our primary operating band however 15 was very useful in digi for getting across the Rockies. I was able to even make one contact to Santa Barbara using 10 meters!

KD9LEY (left) and KD9BGS (right) burning the midnight oil

Our operations began at 2:00 PM EDT on Saturday and ran through 2:00 PM EDT Sunday. At the beginning, we overlapped with the 4H Shooting Sports Extravaganza which brought many youth over to see what we were doing. I’m hoping more than one got the “bug” for radio and will want their mom/dad to bring them to the Hamfest next month to get their license!

As the hours dragged on, our crowd grew fewer and fewer. Eventually, even KD9LEY and myself went to our respective vehicles for a well-needed nap only to awake hours later to the approaching thunderclouds. Some quick action to cover equipment kept everything dry and we were back to operations a little after sunrise. Unsurprisingly, the activity on the bands seemed to follow our “awake” and “asleep” modes (hihi).

CQ FD received on my iPhone on 14.230 MHz

I’m looking forward to the next event which will likely be Winter Field Day. I’m not sure if I’ll be inspired to build something new or go with tried and true. Hopefully just something different!

Hamvention 2022 (2020)

Until a few years ago, I had no idea that things like a “hamfest” existed. My first was our club’s first hamfest, the ECI Hamfest, in 2019. I really wasn’t sure what to expect but it got me hooked once I started seeing the fellowship of the “old man”, swap meets indoors and out, testing for new licenses and upgrades, and, of course, the food. Ever since that first hamfest, I had the bug and wanted to visit as many as I practically could. I had heard of the “big one”, or Mecca for Ham Radio, called “Hamvention” and it was in Dayton which was only an hour-ish away. So I bought a ticket to go!

Then, COVID hit. Not to downplay the impact it had on people’s lives, but any and all hamfests seemed to be put on indefinite hold. As the months drew nearer to Hamvention, it was obvious that this, too, would be canceled. Then the next hamfest was canceled followed by another. ECI Hamfest was determined to go on and with the sign-off from our Board of Health we had a plan to make it as safe as possible.

Enter 2021. Things are looking better around the world however not quite to the point where I was sure Hamvention, and all other hamfests, would be able to continue. The committee was at least kind enough to offer to forward any tickets purchased from 2020 to 2021 assuming they would have the event which, spoiler, they did not. Many other hamfests also decided not to continue in 2021 however some did.

2022 promised many better things. We had more people getting vaccinated, deaths were on the decline, serious hospitalizations were on the decline. From many perspectives, COVID was on its way to becoming less of a big deal. And Hamvention was promised to be on. If not, it was promised to never come back. What a shock!

The Rules

I’ve learned a few things early on with any hamfest:

  1. Get there as early as possible on the first day. All the good deals will be had in the first hour of the hamfest and that radio you’ve been looking for is guaranteed to go quick.
  2. Go to the outdoor vendors first. The indoor vendors either brought enough product that they’ll be there a while or they are banking on selling larger ticket items to cover the cost of the table. Your deals are outdoors where the tables are cheap.
  3. Talk. If nothing else, you’ll have a good conversation about things you’re both likely passionate about. The bonus is that they may have that radio or power supply or other gear that you want and would be willing to take lower than asking price.
  4. Eat. I don’t know what else to say about this one. Surely there is some good cuisine you’d enjoy.
  5. If you can, stay until the bitter end. If you thought the first hour deals were good, wait until the last hour. Many hams bring things to sell that they really REALLY don’t want to take back home. Chances are that you’ll find many hams offering what they have left at ridiculous price drops or even free of charge. It may be junk and it may not be, but you decide if it has a special place in your home and snag it at the best price available.

The Fear of Missing Out

That being said, Hamvention was like no other hamfest I had ever attended. The outside vendors occupied what seemed like 40 square miles. Row after row of tables and vans just overflowing with equipment. As a ham told me, “if you can’t find it at Dayton, it doesn’t exist.” I was in search of a Kenwood TH-FH6a, a nice handheld tri-bander that also receives HF SSB. And it existed! Only one table in all the lands (that I could search in the first few hours) and he had it available at an excellent price. Only problem was that it was missing the charger because he left it at home. For reasons still unknown to me, I passed on the deal. Maybe I was overwhelmed with shock from actually being at Hamvention or maybe I was hoping to find another. Either way, I missed out on that one as it was gone the next time I swung around. Oh well.

Forums

Some hamfests have forums or presentations on a topic around ham radio. I really think these set a hamfest apart from a swap meet. Hamvention was not in short supply of those either. With 3 forum halls (plus an informal space in one of the expo halls), there was a full schedule for all 3 days. I was especially interested in the ARISS-USA, AMSAT, Fast Track on Propagation, and POTA forums.

ARISS is always fascinating. Not only do they put amateur radios on the International Space Station for APRS or SSTV, but they actually work with astronauts to talk with school kids using ground stations! AMSAT is a major part of that however I missed out on this forum. Too many things to do! Michael Burnette’s Fast Track series is a great way to learn and get your license. His talk on propagation and how the Fresnel Zone affects your signal was one of the more fun ways to learn. I tried getting in to the POTA forum however it was completely full at 10 minutes prior to the talk. Maybe next year!

What’s Next?

I plan on being more active in local hamfests for sure. I already volunteer for parking assistance, security, VE testing, cleanup, etc. I want to add more to our local hamfest and will be looking for what draws others to the event. I like parts of it and other people may like other parts. If you have an idea of something that is missing in your local hamfests, let me know! I want to make them more fun and draw more crowds. Maybe I will see you at the next one!

In the beginning…

I can remember how it all started. Kind of. Quite a few hams I know got started in the hobby through the Citizen’s Band (CB) radio. It’s fairly easy to setup in your vehicle or as a base at home and talk to others locally or, when band conditions allow, around the world. I, too, had a small foray in the CB world having had a small portable radio with a magmount on my Chevy S-10 truck. I had it for about all of 2 weeks thinking I could talk to truckers on I-70 and give them a good “breaker breaker good buddy” however I never heard a peep. Maybe I just wasn’t doing something right I’ll never know but that was when I was 16 and I hadn’t touched radio for another 17 years.

Preppers

Fast forward to 2017 and I’m talking with a friend, Brent KD9EYI, who had been talking about some prepping he had been doing including getting his radio license. You could say that I am interested in prepping though perhaps it’s more about survival. My boys are in Boy Scouts and I enjoy being with them on campouts and practicing basic (and very basic) skills. I happened to think about what may happen if we were out camping and something were to happen. What if my cell phone was dead or out of range? Maybe I could call for help using a radio!

Yeah, I know. Not likely to happen in the midwest where my struggle for cell coverage happens to only be around the Indiana/Ohio border and even then it’s not that bad. Still, the idea that there was a “certification” and knowledge gained intrigued me as well as the idea that I could have the license “just in case” seemed like a good idea. Brent let me know about a class coming up with the Muncie club teaching for the Technician’s license and I signed up.

The Teaching

Gary KD9ZUV and Rob KB7ZGB were the instructors and I learned in that class that there is a whole lot more to radio than just talking into a microphone. I learned that people had figured out how to send images and even television across radio long before the internet. That there were folks not just listening to transmissions from the International Space Station but with this basic license I could even speak to them! Of course I didn’t know how to do those things and the Technician license exam is not going to teach how to do those things but what Gary and Rob did for me was to open my eyes to the world of ham radio and just how exciting it really could be.

After a few weeks of class and some butterflies during the exam, I passed with flying colors. What seemed like an eternity, but was only about a week, my license finally showed up in the FCC database. I was now known as KD9LVX and allowed to “dispense hot air”! I ordered my first radio from Amazon, a Baofeng UV-5R which I later learned was pretty ubiquitous for new hams. Next: mic fright.

SSTV really caught my eye for some reason. I was intrigued enough to try learning more about it and even found an app on my iPhone that could encode/decode the multi-tonal sounds into an image. Cool! Now I just needed to find someone to send me some pictures. Luckily the ISS had announced that they would soon be broadcasting SSTV as an event celebrating… something. Either way I had a window to now mix tracking of a satellite and receive some pictures. Yay!

Spacemen sent me pictures

I recall it was a chilly morning on the first pass. And a bit rainy but not too bad. I had no idea about satellite work and using a Yagi antenna along with either dual VFO’s or dual radios for the U/V repeater functions but all I wanted to do was to hear what they were saying. That first pass I heard a lot of static and a bit of squarbled sounds. It was over before I knew what was wrong but some after some thought I concluded what was wrong was that I wasn’t pointing my rubber duck antenna at the ISS. I was close in my conclusions but later in my learnings I would find out just how close.

The next pass was the next day. Still chilly and still slightly wet but I was determined to make Day 2 even better. I’m standing in the backyard holding the radio in one hand, my phone in the other. Using an app I found to track satellites I found the ISS in the sky and pointed my antenna towards it. Then I switched over to the app for SSTV and waited. Nothing heard the first few seconds I was sure that I did something wrong. Just as I was about to change hands I started hearing the SSTV signal. It wasn’t the clearest nor the strongest however it was just enough to get a fuzzy picture on my phone of some comrade cosmonauts. (ISS is International after all)

I later improved on future passes to use a Yagi tape measure antenna (super simple and cheap to build) and decided to record the tones instead of live decoding. I could then use an app on my computer for better processing. An upgraded radio to the Yaesu FT-3DR helped tremendously as well with a better receiver and built-in recording. Now I’ve got more handheld radios (too many Baofengs to count) than I know what to do with. I’m sure that will make its way into a future post though for now I’d close with this: Whatever your reason for getting into the hobby, whatever it was that sparked your interest, what you REALLY want to do, just don’t let that stop you or limit you. There is a world of this hobby that even I have yet to discover or try out and every bit of what I’ve done has been exciting. Yes, even the electrical engineering degree you need for Amateur Extra. (Not really, but kinda.)

JOTA 2021

JOTA (Jamboree on the Air) is an opportunity to bring amateur radio to scouting. Each year, typically in October, scouts and scouters get on the air waves to talk about how scouting impacts their lives across the country and the world.

Eli Knasinski (KD9SQQ), Chad White (KD9SYJ), and Isaiah White from Troop 17

Troop 17 participated in JOTA this weekend at our charter organization’s location, Harrisville Congregational Christian Church. Our troop trailer (not pictured) has a PVC pipe mounted to the side with a 30 foot extended flagpole mast reaching to the sky. It’s almost tall enough that it should be supported with guy wires however our dipole antennas seemed to keep it steady in the low wind environment.

For antennas we chose to run with 2 dipoles. Reaching the top of the mast was a dipole cut for the center of the 80 meter band. It is constructed of speaker wire (which works wonderful for measuring twice and cutting once!) and a simple center conductor that also has a 1:1 balun connected to RG58/U coax. Our second dipole is cut for the 40 meter band and was approximately 4-5 feet lower from the top of the pole. It is constructed of green electrical wire (thanks Mike!) with a center conductor connected to RG58/U coax. Both antennas were oriented North-South so we were broadside to the East-West.

Jason Knasinski (KD9BGS and Troop 17 Scoutmaster) with Chad White (KD9SYJ)

Our 80 meter dipole was connected to my MFJ-949D antenna tuner and in turn was connected to my Yaesu FT-891 radio in my go-box. This setup worked great for all of 80 meters and even though orientation was wrong the band was so open that I was hearing stations from Antigua and Santiago with no problem!

Jason was working the 40 meter band with his ICOM IC-7300. That is one awesome radio with a built-in tuner, waterfall display, and voice spectrum analyzer all in one box. Again, we were not oriented for North-South contacts but he was able to work a group of scouts in Toronto that said the temperature was 38

First post

I’ve not built a website since before WordPress was even an idea. I’ve used tools such as Adobe Dreamweaver and straight HTML editing but this is a bit new to me so bear with me as we get going as many things will likely change.

This blog is primarily going to be used to document my exploration into ham radio. I’ve been licensed since October 2017 and currently hold an Amateur Extra license. My oldest son is also licensed currently as a Technician, KD9SYJ. My youngest is trying to get his license and will very soon.

Having already started my journey now 4.5 years in, I’ll likely post a few blogs about how I started and some highlights of what I’ve done. I’m also currently finishing up a Bachelor’s degree in Cloud and System Administration so these next posts may or may not be on any regular cadence.

Have a question or want to send me a note? Feel free to comment here or shoot it in an email to kd9lvx@kd9lvx.com!