Ham it Up—On the Air!

Amateur Radio for Students and the General Public
By Laura Brandt (museum educator), Connie Atkisson (teacher), and Liz MacDonald (scientist)

Last fall, Dr. Liz and Laura got their Technician (entry-level) ham radio licenses as part of auditing a class for teachers, grad students, and undergrads on The Physics of Ham Radio taught by Rice University professor Dr. Patricia Reiff, a NASA collaborator. Laura and one of our classmates, fifth grade teacher Connie Atkisson, approached the class without prior experience in college level physics. As we learned about the practice of amateur radio, Connie and Laura also discovered ways to make it easier. In this post, we’ll introduce ham radio and provide resources for folks who have focused on other fields. 

What is ham radio? 

Ham radio is the affectionate nickname for amateur radio, an exciting hobby that combines sport, innovation, space weather science, and technology, and which is practiced by volunteers. Amateur radio operators, known as “hams,” have been important players in the development of radio from around the turn of the 20th century. Today, there are a little under 770,000 licensed ham radio operators in the United States, and many more worldwide. The community is constantly growing and innovating new ways to modernize radio technology. 

A meme reads: "Amateur Radio: (n) A hobby, where people talk about their hobby, using their hobby."

Meme by Daniel Goldman, whose ham radio “call sign,” or user handle, is AC2YB

Importantly, hams are volunteers who perform crucial roles in society. While each of the following programs is all-volunteer and requires special training, public service is central to the ham community and its charter from the FCC. During emergencies when communication networks are down, amateur radio signals still work. Hams step up and relay vital information between emergency services. They practice for these eventualities by providing communications to large community events like festivals and marathons. Astronauts who travel to the International Space Station are trained in amateur radio communications, and hams connect classrooms directly with the astronauts through the ARISS program. 

This doesn’t mean that ham radio operation is all serious, however. Amateur radio operators engage in “contesting,” or fun competitions, in addition to building friendships and community over the air. 

Did you say aurora science? 

Yes! Hams are acutely aware of the aurora and space weather, because for long-distance communication, they bounce radio signals off the ionosphere, the part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere at which it occurs. Auroras can mess with their signals—or make irregularities in the ionosphere dense enough to send signals even farther distances! 

A diagram shows the curvature of the Earth beneath the curvature of two atmospheric layers. On either side are two sets of triangles. Each triangle is connected with an opposite via a line that moves on an angle up to the ionosphere and reflects down on an angle.

Diagram of radio signals reflecting off two different layers of the section of the Earth’s upper atmosphere called the ionosphere. From “Radio Waves and the Ionosphere,” by Ian Poole G3YWX, ARRL.

In addition to this, there are auroras beyond the ones we can see, called radio auroras. With powerful equipment, amateur radio operators can observe these phenomena. There are even citizen science projects like HamSCI and Radio JOVE that study changes due to the Sun, solar eclipses, Jupiter, and aurora using radio signals. For example, with the HamSCI Personal Space Weather Station project, currently under development, very technically advanced volunteers will be able to help make measurements of Earth’s space environment. The HamSCI 2021 virtual workshop will include more information on this project. Note that non-hams can listen but not transmit over the air, so you don’t need a license to observe the science for some projects, like the HamSCI Personal Space Weather Station, Radio JOVE, and EclipseMob. You can also listen to short-wave radio receivers over the internet for free at KiwiSDR


Audio clip courtesy of Dr. Nathaniel Frissell W2NAF from when he was at McMurdo Station, Antarctica on December 27, 2014 at 07:46 UTC, on the 14.013 MHz radio frequency. In the clip, you can hear Morse Code signals being distorted by aurora as they bounce off the ionosphere. Morse Code is not necessary for a ham license, but opens doors to all kinds of cool projects!

How does a person become a ham? 

Hams have to be licensed, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) governs ham radio licensing. The higher-level license you have, the more radio frequencies and privileges you can access. Essentially, you study and take a test so that the FCC knows you know how to safely transmit radio signals within allotted limits. The official license study guide is about $30 for a hard copy, and there’s a ~$35 fee to take the exam. Ham radio does require a significant amount of free time, both to study for the exam and participate in the hobby. On receiving their license, a ham is assigned a 4-6 digit “call sign” or user handle to identify themselves. Some hams choose to register for creative custom call signs—and some call signs are even passed down through families!

Ham radio is a very public hobby, and several conventions can raise concerns in our modern world. Call signs reveal a surprising amount of information: for example, license information is published by call sign in a public database, including the address you provide. When making contacts, strangers routinely mail one another special postcards. This was less comfortable for Laura as an LGBTQIA2+ person than for her classmates, but she learned that you can use any address at which you have access to mail. For example, a teacher can have a license for the school club using the school’s address, or an individual can use a work address, a local club mailbox, or even a friend’s address. Another concern is that there are services such as aprs.fi that can track individuals’ real-time locations using their call signs and radios. It is important to approach ham radio with an awareness of these considerations.

What about the equipment? 

Ham radios come in many different types and capabilities. Simple “handy-talkie” HT models, which look like walkie-talkies and are often used by beginners, are conveniently sized and run about $40 minimum with the necessary cables. The availability of these relatively powerful, very small radios is enabling new participants. They have limited frequency range, though, and cannot listen to aurora or bounce signals off of aurora-affected ionosphere, since they typically only operate in frequencies not affected by aurora. If you don’t want to buy a radio, you can use a computer/phone app called EchoLink to talk to other hams anywhere in the world through an Internet connection, but it’s a different experience and doesn’t provide the same science opportunities. 

Laura's hand (complete with fabulous aurora nail wraps) grips a device like a walkie-talkie

Laura’s beginner handy-talkie, a Baofeng BF-F8HP

A larger, more complex setup capable of observing radio aurora in the HF frequencies can cost about $500–$1,000. The frequencies used to do this kind of science can also require a higher-level license. We are still figuring out what the best entry level points are for observing effects of space weather and will report back as we learn more.

Can students become hams? 

Yes! There is no age limit to getting a ham radio license. In fact, ham radio provides a multitude of teaching opportunities and curricular tie-ins. As a fifth grade teacher, Connie is excited about the potential of ham radio for students. It gives them the opportunity to be part of one of the original social networks, teaches tech skills, and offers new experiences—including ways to serve their communities. This can include empowering students in the emergency situation training that schools already provide, increasing their confidence. 

A chart lists ways that ham radio ties in with NGSS curricula

Screenshot from a class presentation by Connie Atkisson, showing ways that ham radio ties in with Next Generation Science Standards curricula in different subjects and at different levels.

Amateur radio gives students opportunities to grow their verbal communication skills. Because they talk to people outside their immediate area, it can also spark interest in geospatial navigation, which is critical to math, physics, and social studies. Students also learn to safely use, care for, and manage the technology required to participate. 

As a hands-on, multisensory means of learning, ham radio can increase accessibility for students with different needs or multiple learning styles. Laura struggled with math and physics in school but loves to play music. The physics of waves and radio “clicked” for her when she started comparing radio waves with the sounds and strings of her instruments. On Laura’s hammered dulcimer, vibrating strings either resonate or interfere with one another’s sounds depending on how well they are tuned. Imagining the sending of information on radio waves as shifting notes out of tune in tiny, meaningful ways helped her bridge her knowledge gap and better understand physics. Similarly, Air Force veteran Mark Doubleday commented on the closing talk for the HamSCI 2020 conference: “I wish we had been taught basic radio and electronics when I was in high school. It would have made understanding and learning Algebra, trigonometry, and introductory calculus much easier to learn and understand. When I joined the Air Force and went into radio and electronics the “lights” finally came on and all of those fields of mathematics finally made sense.” 

Several students sit listening as one student speaks into a microphone

Young amateur radio operators participate in regular events called Schools on the Air, ARRL Photo Gallery

His comment also makes the important point that amateur radio can help students build career-oriented skill sets. In her ARRL article “Amateur Radio in the STEM Classroom One Technical Tool—Countless Lesson Applications,” Edith Lennon N2ZRW, says: “As both a teaching tool and as a hobby, [amateur radio] has demonstrated a strong motivating influence, one that readily leads to careers in computer sciences, consumer electronics, broadcast engineering, research sciences, medicine, telecommunications, and more.” 

But I haven’t cracked a science textbook in decades! 

It’s okay, neither had Laura! There are a number of really good resources for learning ham radio, but most of them assume you have a basic working knowledge of algebra and physics. Connie and Laura are here to tell you: don’t be intimidated by the numbers! There are many wonderful resources that make them easier to understand. Laura and Connie had to put in the time to practice, but both were able to pass their ham radio exams on the first try. Here are suggestions for approaching your ham exam without a physics background:

  • Find a community
    • ARRL, the Amateur Radio Relay League, is the national amateur radio association for the USA. Its website is a fount of information and community. Check out their On the Air Magazine and podcast
    • Find a ham club and talk to people there about what it is like. The hams we have met have been warm, welcoming, and happy to be mentors, or “Elmers,” to newbies. Also their clubhouse may have shared radio equipment and larger antennas for use at low cost.
    • For Connie and Laura, taking a class made a huge difference because they could work through some questions with their classmates, and ask their professor about others. They strongly recommend this kind of support if the material isn’t immediately familiar. 
  • Review a little physics
    • The second half of the book The Cartoon Guide to Physics covers the basics of Electricity and Magnetism in a fun, approachable way.
    • Ohm’s Law is central to the electronics that make up radio.
    • Dr. Liz recommends that if you are a physics or engineering student, now is the time to get your license!
  • Take practice tests!
    • Keep taking practice tests. These will help you gauge your knowledge, help you figure out what sections you need to practice a little more, and you’ll start to recognize the questions after a while. There are practice tests available at QRZ and other websites. 
  • Talk like a ham!
    • There’s also a lot of slang and jargon in the ham community. Here’s a primer, but a newbie hint is to say “73” for “see you later!” It’s a fun first entrance into speaking like a ham. Using the terminology can help build confidence and remind you that you’re already part of the community because you’re making the effort.
  • The rest of it mostly falls under the following: be polite, be safe, and follow FCC regulations.  

Ham radio operators have contributed to communications, technology, and emergency response for over a century. Joining this widespread and fascinating community can be a lot of fun! You can find out more at ARRL and HamSCI. We are also happy to share more about what we have learned. 

73 (best wishes), and feel free to reach out at aurorasaurus.info@gmail.com if you have any questions or suggestions!

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