Ham Radio: Not Just For Science Nerds

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sci nerdsMy status as a prepper means I’ve developed something of a varied skill set over the years, from spinning wool to the martial arts. So you’d think by now I’d have learned to think twice when the thoughts, “Oh, I could never do that,” and “that kind of thing isn’t for people like me,” enter my head.

I used to think that way about canning fruit, but now I can knock out a batch of apple pie filling in like an hour and a half and it’s not even a big deal. But it took quite a bit of nudging for me to think that ham radio was something I could add to my ever-growing list of hobbies, especially given my status as a liberal arts (not science) major.

My high school in Texas had a very active ham radio club. They advertised their club meetings aggressively and were very active in trying to recruit more members. I ignored them because I mistakenly thought that ham radio was for a much different class of nerd than the one I occupied. Specifically: the class of people who know what capacitors and resistors are and what they do, can solder things, collect wires, and think mistakes in circuits are the best kinds of jokes. I certainly had a thing for Star Trek, but was more of a Latin Club, Lord of the Rings kind of gal. Ham radio wasn’t for people like me.

Why now?

Given my status as a stay-at-home mom of three kids, communication in an emergency is something that has weighed heavily on my mind as we’ve refined our preparation strategy. What if, in a scenario that involved downed cellphone towers and zero internet access, I desperately needed to send for help? Amateur radio has a proven track record and is known to be an excellent means of communication in times like I have described. It helped that some folks in my neighborhood asked me to be the go-to emergency preparedness person; that gave me the nudge I needed to bite the bullet and get my Technician’s license.

With some trepidation, I checked out the ARRL liscensing manual from the library and spent some time reading through it. I wasn’t very many pages in when I looked up from my studying and asked my electrical engineering-major husband, “How come I’m the one getting into this stuff and not you? You could probably pass the exam without even studying at all.” Much of the study material was far outside my comfort zone. I managed to find time to study several nights a week for the better part of a month, and with the help of online study aides like Ham Study and Ham Exam I successfully passed the licensing exam on my first try.

The Test.

I signed up for a crash-course of sorts that took place before the exam, in hopes that it would fill in any gaps in my studying. I went in there expecting to find mostly stereotypical engineer-nerd types: guys ranging in their early 20s to mid 40s with little dress sense and worse social skills. The type of people who actually attended surprised me. I sat in between two silver-haired ladies, both of whom loved nothing more than to regale me with stories about their grandchildren. A middle-aged guy sitting in back of me attended the class with his two teenage daughters and his mother-in-law.

I also had the false expectation that old-timers in radio would scoff and roll their eyes at the idea of a housewife trying to become a ham, much like one sees in the gamer community. (“Pfft, n00bs.”) Quite to the contrary, all the hams with whom I’ve interacted have been overjoyed to welcome more people into their fold. When I contacted the local university if I could, as an alumna, participate in their radio club, the advisor gave me an enthusiastic affirmative response. It’s a little like a religious movement in this aspect – underneath everything, hams feel a glimmer of hope that they can convert everyone they know.

The test itself is set up for this. It covers only the bare minimum of what new hams should know before getting on the air. All test questions and answers are open to the public, so you could easily, if you were so inclined, simply memorize the correct answers without actually understanding anything about radio. The clear goal is to freely give people the tools needed to get started, in hopes that they will get “the bug.” Many of the questions are simple enough that children as young as ten can and do pass the exam and become licensed amateur radio operators. This should be a lesson for us all – if a kid can do it, there’s no reason why any literate adult can’t do the same.

My experience, so far.

I want to reiterate that my experience with amateur radio has not been easy-breezy. I studied International Relations and Area Studies in college, not circuits and sine waves, so the technical aspect was quite challenging for me. I did find, to my relief, that this branch of knowledge was not beyond my understanding. That didn’t stop me from closing my study manual at regular intervals to throw my hands into the air with the impassioned lament, “I don’t even know why I’m doing this. I’m not a technical person. This is crazy. It’s not even like I’ve always wanted to do this, it’s just a dumb idea that popped into my head one day.”

These are thoughts that I’m sure plague all of us when trying to learn a new skill, especially when it doesn’t come right away. Even though it was hard, I can see the value in having taken the time to study and learn about the subject, independent of having obtained my license. How many of us carry smartphones around with us every day? How many of us have wifi installed in our homes? Those things are such a major part of our modern lives, but do we understand even the basics of how they work?

The reading I did to prepare for my exam gave me a new appreciation for technology we so often take for granted. It’s something I feel everyone should look into, regardless of whether you decide to become a ham. Not only that but stretching myself was (and is!) enriching and has been the cause of personal growth.

It’s been good for my kids to watch me take this step, as well. Mostly they think it’s cool; my six-year-old made a radio transceiver out of legos, and my three-year-old drew a picture of some mysterious technical device that required a “big call sign!” in order to work. On a more serious note, I believe that their observation of me has taught them that learning and growing is not something that stops when you get your diploma; it’s a life-long endeavor.

I hope that my experience will inspire more people like me – those of you in the liberal arts, who never thought of doing something “technical” – to give ham radio a chance. You’ll be glad you did.

More resources for AMATEUR RADIO:

9 thoughts on “Ham Radio: Not Just For Science Nerds”

  1. I recently got a few buddies in Amateur Radio (HAM) as well. It’s a fun hobby that anyone can get involved with, but what really makes it interesting to me is there are so many different applications for amateur radio. You could simply want to pick up a handheld (like the baofeng for around $30) and chat with some people on local repeaters, or you could experiment with antenna building, or put your call sign into the QRZ database and even make some contacts via EchoLink using a computer.

    HAM is definitely not complicated to get into, but once you’re involved you can get as extreme into theory and radio engineering as you care too. I’ve pushed a few friends to train for the exam with a “trial by fire” method of taking the tests available on http://qrz.com/hamtest and learning the answers. It’s not a traditional method, but if you’re simply interested in using HAM for communicating and expanding your skillset, it’s perfect do-able with just a couple weeks of practice.

    Good read, and glad to see more people getting involved in the amateur radio world!


  2. I know what you mean! When I was reading through the test study guide, I said to my husband, “This is like learning a whole new language!” But I persevered and passed my tech test a couple of years ago. 🙂

  3. I have had my ham ticket since 1993 and 8 enjoy talking all over the world, fact is that is how I get 95% of my news, there have been times that while talking major news items have happened right then. I was the radio talking to JP1AN over in Japan when the 9.1 earthquake occurred. Hamradio can be and is a whole lot of fun, it can also be a lifesaver, you just never know, my ssuggestionget into it and see for yourself.

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  5. I also got my tech license a couple of years ago. The online resources that allow you to take the practice tests multiple times were invaluable for a non-technical person like me. Way more useful than the books I found because I got immediate feedback.

    Getting over the mental barrier of “I’m a non-technical person” was the biggest challenge. With a little work, I COULD understand the material and pass the test. I wouldn’t say I have a deep understanding of it all yet but I certainly boosted my knowledge of it and I passed the test with a nearly 100% score.

    Now I’m trying to get my Scout son to finish his too.

  6. It is indeed easy to pass the tech test, as it’s mostly rules, laws and really basic stuff. not much tech at all. I took my General test a month later and passed it 1st time also. The Extra Class test was much harder and is like an engineering level. Better have an electronic tech background and/or a VERY good memory. It can be done, and the benefits of Extra class is that you get all bands to use, not just certain parts, as with the other two. For new hams interested, there is no longer a code requirement.

    QRZ.com has a practice test that can’t be beat for ease of use and learning. It asks the question and if you choose after you get a wrong answer, it gives you the correct answer. Took me 6 months for the Extra test, but passed the first time out

    Good luck!
    Earl N4XK

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  8. As a ham for about 25 years, N8ZQZ, and my husband, WX4TV, many years longer I’d like to pass on a little more information. We are very active in the ham radio world and my husband has lived through and helped with many emergency situations around the world. He is the sciency guy, I am the homemaker and homeschooling mom. This is what my husband would say… A Technician license is well and good, but not very helpful in emergency situations. One really needs a General and even better an Extra class license for a number of reasons, like the band privileges and knowledge needed in those types of situations. When everything is knocked out one really needs to know the hows, whys, and capabilities of equipment. My husband can make a radio or antenna out of nothing. He can get on the air and make a contact with a car battery and his knowledge of morse code. Most Technicians don’t have this knowledge. My husband jokingly says that the Technician license teaches a person the laws and just enough technical information to not kill themselves. So we encourage everyone to at least get to the General license level.

    Secondly, get on the air! Experience makes a huge difference in the skills one has. We find that most people with a prepper mentality get their license, get equipment, and then think they are ready. If this is you, we can say that you are surely NOT ready. One needs to know their equipment and know it well. It is too late to learn it when everything around you is falling apart. (Think along the lines of having taken a CPR course many years ago. Thinks change. And things are hard to remember if you don’t have them ingrained in you.)

    Thirdly, buy decent equipment that is easy for you to use. While Baofeng is cheap it is very difficult for many to use and program. In the active ham community it is complained about a LOT! Most comments run along the lines of it needs an engineer just to figure out how to program the thing. It also doesn’t stand up to wear and tear very well. We are a family of 6 hams. Yes, 6 hams! (Our 4 children ranging from 9-15 have been hams for a few years now. WX4TVJ is 15, Extra; AE4FH, 12, Extra; KM4IPF, 10, Extra: and KM4TXT, 9, General.) I share this to say that when they passed their tests they were given Baofeng’s, but it only took 2 weeks for us to figure out that this was not going to work well for us. One drop and they’d be broken. We already had a couple of Yaesu HTs and had dropped them many, many times with no signs of injury to the radios, so we knew there were better options out there… yes for more than $20, but they at about $150 or more depending on which radios we picked we would have radios that were more reliable. (We have 6 HTs… 3 Yaesu & 3 Icom, all of which we like, while our Baofengs sit in a drawer as backups only.)

    Lastly, I will add that as a family with 6 hams, 2 of which have set 3 world records, two of which have been the youngest Extra class operators in the US/World (and one still is), we have set up a website geared toward answering people’s questions about ham radio. But mostly we set it up as a teaching tool. The children teach all about ham radio. They review the things in the ham radio world. And they show that if a child can do it, then surely an adult ham can do it.

    The website is http://www.hamradio.world.
    Or they can be found on https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ham+radio+dot+world

    The website has more information than the youtube channel. It is geared toward families, new, or want-to-be hams.

    73, N8ZQZ

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