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RF Lets Students, Space Tourist Explore Tech World

The Amateur Satellite Organization allows students of all ages to learn about radio frequencies, wireless communications, aeronautics, physics and chemistry.
Ham radio helped Stephanie Radcliff discover her life's inspiration.

Years ago, the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate talked to an astronaut using the simple radio frequency technology and decided to become an astronaut herself.

This week, about a dozen students from a Brooklyn high school had the same opportunity to explore the world of science through the program that inspired Radcliff.

"The kids are just walking on air," Rosalie White, one of two U.S. delegates making decisions for the international program, said in an interview Friday. "They become stars in their families and in school. How many kids get to talk to astronauts in real-time, in school? It's pretty phenomenal stuff."

White, a volunteer with the American Radio Relay League and international secretary treasurer for Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, said the educational outreach program allows students to interview astronauts for about 10 minutes. It also encourages them to learn about science and technology, making them more prepared to compete in the global technology markets. The students must study a wide range of science subjects before and after preparing and asking their interview questions.

Thursday, astronomy students from Fort Hamilton High School linked up with Brooklyn-native, scientist, and International Space Station tourist Greg Olsen. They focused on astronomy and general questions about what it's like to be up there.

The educational outreach program - supported through NASA, ARISS, ARRL, the Amateur Satellite Organization and other countries' space programs since 2000 - has allowed students of all ages to learn about radio frequencies, wireless communications, aeronautics, physics and chemistry. It even inspires the astronauts to learn.

Astronauts must study and pass a test for their ham radio licenses. Volunteers equip them and send amateur radio operators to classrooms. The students get their equipment from the operators or their district, depending on arrangements worked out in advance. About once a week, on International Space Station missions, the astronauts answer students' questions.

Because the Brooklyn high school has many obstacles obstructing signals in the 5-watt system, Olsen spoke to the students using a system that was popular during the Vietnam War. Like service men who have had their phone calls patched through by amateur operators using "tele-bridging," the students were able to connect to Olsen by making phone connections with radio operators in Hawaii and Australia, White said.

In Bloomington, Ind., a chemistry teacher and ARRL member Neil Rapp, uses amateur radio to teach his students about electromagnetic radiation and waves.

"Electrons move in waves, and are too small to observe," he explained recently after being given ARRL's annual teaching award. "So we study the properties of waves in the electromagnetic spectrum as a good comparison."

Students use a hand-held transceiver to see how radio frequency affects wavelength, signal strength, radio propagation and the differences between AM and FM broadcast signals. They compare various radio waves, on school buses and at drive-thrus, discovering how wireless technology affects their lives.

"American students with a practical understanding of wireless technology can better compete in our global world," Rapp said.

About 40 schools participate in ARISS each year. Most schools that apply get to participate. Right now, the waiting list is about two years, but mission delays and changes can alter the wait time.

White thinks it's worth it.

"The U.S. needs to compete globally," she said. "We're helping kids get interested in this. If you can bring science and technology into their hands, on a practical, integrate-it-into-your-daily life lessons, what's better than that?"