What we learned at the Collegiate Amateur Radio Forum in Orlando

It’s no secret that recruiting a new generation into our essential avocation is a challenge these days. Technological innovations can diminish the wow factor of amateur radio and the time constraints college students face make it tough for them to get actively involved in ham clubs. But it turns out that the same things that enticed many of us more seasoned souls to engage are still important, and still work.

A group about 20 of us gathered at the 2017 Orlando Hamcation as part of the ARRL’s Collegiate Amateur Radio Initiative. Tom Gallagher, NY2RF, opened the conversation, expressing the league’s total support for our efforts. He’s doing a terrific job at the helm of an evolving organization that must walk a tightrope to serve an eclectic and often opinionated constituency.

Then it was time for the conversation.

We covered a number of topics which I’ll try to collate into some common buckets.

Getting the word out: Andy Milluzzi, KK4LWR is the President of the University of Florida’s Gator Amateur Radio Club. He pointed out that the fast-growing maker community is where potential radio amateurs are most likely to be found. Maker spaces exist in just about every college town and partnering with them is an easy way to get at the low hanging fruit.

Ed Oxer, W8EO, talked about MSUARC’s activities at Sparticipation, our annual fall gathering of student run organizations. Having a highly visible and attractive presence there yielded productive leads and prospective members.

Some clubs hold their own mini-hamfests, where the swap and shop dimension often yields gifts to the club as the shadows lengthen and alumni don’t want to haul their gear back home.

And, as always, showing off the magic often is the most effective way to grab attention.

Demonstrating the Art: Taking station operations public was suggested by a number of participants. Setting up radios, or remote connections in high traffic areas, where the curious might collect, had the festive feel of the broadcast remotes that many of us who pursued our hobby into a profession used to do. Holding an alumni tailgate with a special events station turned out to be a great way for former students to reconnect and selling club t-shirts there raised some symbolic funds.

Keep your antennas connected to software defined radios that display a visual bandspread in colorful waterfall eye candy for all to see.  A corollary might be to set up an automatic downlink and display of NOAA satellite pictures. Install a flat screen monitor outside your shack, or negotiate a campus wide cable channel and create a rotating presentation of real time DX spots, weather radar and live screen grabs from active rigs. Hook up a webcam that automatically streams live video and rig audio from your shack. Install an APRS I-Gate and connect trackers to your school’s mascot on game day (Like we do with Sparty). Make your shack accessible over the Internet for students who might want to log some contacts from their dorm rooms.

Creating and promoting browser based SDRs can help the curious get a taste of the bands before committing time and energy towards a more active role.

Sponsoring build nights, in concert with maker space partners, with a particular focus on the newest generation of small footprint processors, like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi, demonstrating the latest in digital RF technology and participating in every radiosport event possible gives participants a taste of the depth and breadth of amateur radio in the new millennium. Alumni play a huge role here and can offer both expertise and equipment.

Strategic Partnerships: Find a person or organization who regularly offers ham-in-a-day classes and strategically funnel prospects to them. Reach out to faculty and staff to determine internal interest and solicit mutually beneficial relationships. This might lead to professors offering and automatic 4.0 to those who got licensed. And identifying the right staff member to be the club’s steward is crucial. It needs to be someone who has bought into the vision and has the clout to help execute it.

Work side by side with students and teachers to help create trackers for balloon launches, telemetry for robotic projects and expertise with the 3D printing applications that many hams use to build cases for our own projects. All of these activities position the ham club as a go-t0 resource.

Scouting and amateur radio have a long and storied relationship. Eagle scouts are ideal prospects for any higher education institution and many have likely been exposed to our art during Jamboree On The Air.  Working with local schools, perhaps facilitating an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) contact or advising a high school ham club can fill the pipeline with hot leads for future membership.

The Gear: In a world where students are always upgrading to the latest smart phones, it’s important to keep your shack state of the art. Alumni can assist, perhaps with a “rig on loan” program, crowdfunding for new equipment purchases or outright donations of radios, antennae and associated accoutrements. As mentioned above, access should be easy, perhaps available on line even to alumni who have contributed to the club’s endowment.

One of your club committees should be a shack update group, who focuses solely on the care, maintenance and cool-factor of the gear and the space that displays it.

An ideal club set-up might include one or more repeaters, the second an ever evolving platform for testing new modes; at least two HF operating positions with remote access, a fully automated satellite station, and a plethora of handheld rigs that students can check out.

Mentorship: And herein lies the ultimate key to success. Once a prospect has raised a hand, seek out a cadre of experienced hams who are willing to shepherd the willing into our world, inviting the to attend events and meetings, accompanying them to hamfests, assisting them with programming their radios and encouraging the to take steps outside of their comfort zone. At some point in each of our careers, someone did exactly that for us. There was that one person who fired our imagination, enabled our enthusiasm and cheered our participation.

Quality time is the most valuable thing we can give. It also has the potential to create the biggest return on investment, cementing lifelong friendships and inspiring the mentees to ultimately become mentors in their own right.

If we are to preserve the true magic of amateur radio, the most important thing we can do is “pass it on”.

Listen to audio of the entire ARRL Collegiate Amater Radio Forum here: