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Is Amateur Radio Still a Gateway to Electrical Engineering?

No-Nonsense General Class License Study Guide - RF CafeMany thanks to author and amateur radio operator Dan Romanchik (KB6NU) who sent this article for posting here on RF Cafe. A lot of electrical engineers and hobbyists are familiar with Mr. Romanchik from his stint as Senior Technical Editor for Test&Measurement World magazine (now part of EDN), and by his popular books on preparing for taking and passing Amateur Radio exams- including the newly released "No-Nonsense General Class License Study Guide." Contained within are Dan's observations regarding how Amateur Radio seems to be making a comeback in many realms including colleges, the popularity of radio displays in museums, and a rising number of 'hackers/makers' who are exploring the building, repairing, and operation of radios. See Dan's "Ham Radio Blog" for many more of his ponderings.

Is Amateur Radio Still a Gateway to Electrical Engineering?

Is Amateur Radio Still a Gateway to Electrical Engineering? - RF CafeBy Dan Romanchik, KB6NU

When I was a kid, many of us nerdy types learned electronics by getting an amateur radio license. It was our gateway into electrical engineering

Today, however, there are many other outlets for technically-inclined kids who are interested in electronics and electrical engineering. Personal computers, for example, became a big thing just as I was graduating from college. Computers, because they were so new, were a LOT sexier than amateur radio, and as a result, the number of kids becoming hams dropped. The advent of the Internet only accelerated this trend. Heck, many kids today don't even know what radio is (and don't realize that their cellphones are actually radios).

Fortunately, for the amateur radio community, the hobby seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance among nerdy young people. It may not be the gateway into electrical engineering that it was in the 1960s and 1970s, but it certainly is one of them.

Amateur Radio on Campus

One of the reasons I say this is that amateur radio seems to be enjoying new popularity on college campuses around the country. For example, it was big news in amateur radio circles several years ago when Cal Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo licensed 114 freshman engineering students. They were able to do this because passing the Tech exam counted as one of the midterm exams for the Introduction to Electrical Engineering class.

Here in Ann Arbor, MI, the University of Michigan Amateur Radio Club (UMARC) has been going great guns for more than ten years. Chris Galbraith, KA8WFC, now W1XG, then a grad student got the ball rolling and it's been a solid club ever since. This is partly due to the fact that one space communications course either requires students to get a license or gives them credit for getting a license.

It's more than just about getting course credit, though. The club members seem to really enjoy ham radio. Earlier this year, for example, about 30 UMARC members participated in the club's kit-building project and assembled a regen receiver.

Another example is the amateur radio club at Virginia Tech. I recently talked to Dr. Bob McGwier, who is the faculty advisor for the VA Tech ARC. He told me that they had just gotten $150,000 in funding to build a first-class amateur radio station there. He said, “We are going to completely automate the station and support many missions including the geosynchronous payload.” They're also doing some work on amateur radio satellites and are creating the AMSAT-NA Museum there.

Amateur Radio in Science Museums

Those of you who regularly read my blog know that I am the station manager for WA2HOM, the amateur radio station at Hands-On Museum, here in Ann Arbor, MI. We get lots of visitors, including some kids, who are truly interested in amateur radio. Other notable science centers with ham radio stations include:


I think that hackers/makers are also bringing a lot of vitality into amateur radio. Amateur radio groups are participating in Maker Faires, and there is a lot of interest in amateur radio among hacker groups.

Here in Ann Arbor, for example, many of the members of the All Hands Active makerspace in Ann Arbor have taken my one-day Tech class, and I recently taught a General Class course there. I'm also considering teaching a more general-interest electronics class there at some point.

The maker/hacker movement has already spawned a couple of interesting amateur radio projects:

  • HackRF is an open-source software-defined (SDR) platform. This $300 SDR peripheral capable of transmission or reception of radio signals from 10MHz to 6 GHz. Designed to enable test and development of modern and next generation radio technologies, HackRF One is an open source hardware platform that can be used as a USB peripheral or programmed for stand-alone operation.
  • Portable SDR (PSDR) is another hacker/maker-inspired amateur radio project, that was a finalist for the 2014 Hack-a-Day Prize. The PSDR is a completely stand-alone (no computer needed), compact, Portable Software Defined Transceiver (hence the name, sorta). Originally designed for backpacking use by Ham Radio operators. It includes complete coverage up to about 30Mhz (plus 144Mhz), it has a 168Mhz ARM processor, color display, and an innovative interface. Vector Network Analysis (which includes antenna analysis) and GPS functions are included. The entire design is Open Source. The electronics are designed and laid out to be easy to understand and tinker with. In addition to source code, schematics, board layout and parts lists, articles and videos describing the theory of the design are being created.

While there isn't a direct link between hacking/making and the “profession” of engineering, there is certainly a connection there, making it a gateway to engineering

What Does Ham Radio Offer Kids Today?

I think that amateur radio still has a lot to offer kids with a technical bent:

  • The ability to hack electronics. Older hams like to complain that since all the new radios are built using surface-mount devices (SMDs) and and are software-driven, they can't be fixed or modified like in the old days, and that there are no Heathkits anymore. It's true that there are no Heathkits, but there are plenty of kits available for people to build. Also, kids who are growing up with SMDs don't seem to think of this as a constraint. I've taken this as a personal challenge myself and just last week purchased and SMD solder/rework station to gain some SMD assembly skills
  • Amateur radio operators can also hack computer software. Because many of the amateur radio software-development projects are open source, anyone can get in there and hack away to their heart's content. These include software-defined radio, digital signal processing, digital modes, and mesh networking.
  • Social skills. Despite the jokes about the social skills of the average radio amateur, ham radio does still involve making contacts with other hams, and some projects require hams to work together to successfully complete them.
  • Geography skills. I like to joke that I was the only kid in my high school who knew that the capital of Mongolia was Ulan Bator, and that I knew that because of my interest in shortwave radio.

I think that if you add all those up, you'll see that while amateur radio may not be the gateway to engineering that it used to be, it's certainly still one of them, and there are things that we can do to make it more of a gateway. The thing that will have the most impact is to mentor a kid if you're approached or asked to do so. Being an amateur radio mentor, or Elmer as we say in ham radio, has been a very satisfying experience for me.

A Modest Proposal

One thing that we in amateur radio might think about doing to promote amateur radio as a gateway to electrical engineering is to organize an event similar to Hour of Code. According to the Hour of Code website, “The Hour of Code is a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics.” I would propose that we come up with something like “Hour of Radio” or “Hour of Circuits” that would be a one-hour introduction to amateur radio or electronics/electrical engineering designed to demystify radio/electronics and show that anyone can learn the basics.

What do you think? Anyone want to work with me on the Hour of Radio/Hour of Electronics? Anyone already doing something like this?

About Dan Romanchik

Dan Romanchik, KB6NU, obtained his first amateur radio license at the age of 16. He then went on to earn an EE degree from the University of Detroit. After holding positions as a test engineer and engineering manager, he served as Senior Technical Editor for Test&Measurement World magazine. He is now a freelance writer and Web developer. He blogs about amateur radio at KB6NU.Com and is the author of the “No Nonsense” amateur radio license study guides, 21 Things to Do After You Get Your Amateur Radio License, and The CW Geek's Guide to Having Fun with Morse Code.



Posted May 25, 2015

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