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World explorers: WCS students travel across radio waves

Worthington Christian School students communicate with people around the globe Wednesday afternoon remotely by way of radio waves. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — The U.S., Canada, Central America and Europe represent just a handful of global locations Worthington Christian School students have been able to explore with no passport required.

Using radio frequency technology, WCS students have made contact with hundreds of people across the world by way of radio waves.

“You get to know people you wouldn’t otherwise know,” said WCS fifth-grader Cali Visser of her experience transmitting shortwave radio signals.   

Led by longtime amateur radioer Randy Shirbroun, students interested in learning about amateur (ham) radio have had several hands-on experiences over the past two years during both casual and organized radio operating events via the school’s club station, W0WCS.

An antenna supported by a portable telescoping mast on the front of the school allows students to operate from their temporary station located in the school’s library.

This week, more than half a dozen students stayed after school to travel across the radio dial. In approximately 30 minutes, they made contact with six people across the country. Students asked each connection where they were from and what the weather was like.

One contact from Arkansas seemed genuinely excited when he learned he was talking to students.

“I’ll have to talk to my grandkids and tell them that I talked to an eighth-grader in southwest Minnesota,” he told one student, adding enthusiasm that youths were taking an interest in the hobby.

Reactions similar to the man in Arkansas aren’t uncommon, said eighth-grader Eli Robinson.

“They’re pretty nice people and they’re glad younger kids are interested in (ham radio),” he said.

Beyond communication skills, Shirbroun said the ham radio experience can be used at the elementary and secondary levels to reinforce a variety of subject matter, including social studies, language skills and earth and physical sciences.

At the forefront, though, the project also helps students learn geography, as they’re quick to locate a contact’s location and pin a thumbtack on one of two maps (a North American map and a world map), which presents a visual representation of where they’ve been connected through radio waves.

“It allows them to ‘travel’ via radio waves,” he said.

Shirbroun also logs the contacts in a computer system.

The map is filling up, particularly on the eastern coast of the United States, where the thumb tacks are most dense.

That’s a product, in part, of a bi-annual competition organized by the National Association for Amatuer Radio. During the week-long School Club Roundup competition last month, about nine WCS students contacted more than 200 stations in about 40 states, Canada, Aruba, Columbia and Panama over the course of six hours. That was about double the number of stations they contacted during their first SCR competition a year ago.

In addition to the thumb tacks on a map, students have also received many postcards (known in the amateur radio world as QSL cards) from stations with which they’ve connected. Students have two binders with photo sleeves that continue to be filled up with more postcards as they reach more parts of the world.

Because the frequencies are regulated by the Federal Communication Commission and students are not licensed, Shirbroun is always present when students go live to guide and mentor them as the station’s control operator.

Licensed himself since age 14, Shirbroun has competed in many amateur radio contests over the years, including some with his daughter Kylee by his side. Now in sixth grade, Kylee has expressed interest in getting her license, which requires taking an exam. The 12-year-old may take it as soon as this summer, which would allow her to operate independently.

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