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Old Hamfest — New Hams

Mitch Stern, W1SJ

Ham radio training goes on the road.

In the 30 years I’ve been teaching ham radio, I’ve always found that successfully training new hams is easy. Filling a class with students is not so easy. A couple of years ago, I thought, “hey, why not take the class to the largest ham gathering in the world?” Certainly, there would be many hundreds of potential hams at that location. This is the story of that strange journey.

Back when I started teaching, the entry level class was Novice and the class was a 12 week affair, including training in Morse code. The class would typically start with over 30 people. Over the weeks, all but a few would drop out. The reason was always that they found a job on class night. I changed that class into a successful business venture called “SJ Employment Agency,” which had the motto, “Take the Novice class and we guarantee you’ll get a job.”

In 1991, the no-code Technician license became reality and with it, I changed to a 2 day class with prestudy materials. Some years later, I modified the class so students could obtain their Technician license in a 1 day course. The numbers got a lot better classes would typically have around 20 students and when it was all over, there were 20 new Technician class licensees, which was certainly a much better result.

It became evident that training students in a day-long course was not that difficult. The hard part was putting students in the seats. Living in Vermont, one of the smallest states where cows outnumbered people, didn’t make things any easier. So I took the class on the road to several neighboring states and was very successful in licensing new hams.

The thought occurred to me that bringing a class to a hamfest would be the perfect way to license new hams. Folks are already in one place for a specific reason ham radio and I know from running the local hamfest, that typically 25% of attendees are not licensed. These attendees may be friends or family traveling with a ham or even an electronics collector who never obtained a license. It doesn’t matter, since all have a tie-in with Amateur Radio. With a hamfest attendance of several hundred, that puts a sizeable pool of potential students right on-site.

Traveling Techs

I tried offering a Technician license class at NEAR-Fest in Deerfield, New Hampshire. The logistics to run this class were much less than ideal. The only building available housed the flea market and it was not heated or air conditioned. Since the show ended mid-Saturday afternoon, I didn’t have an entire day for the class, so I ended up splitting it between Friday evening and Saturday morning. Promotion was done at the last minute. Somehow, a small class came together and we dealt with a chilly, noisy and poorly lit location. When it was over everyone passed their Technician test!

I inquired about doing a class at the Dayton Hamvention. I knew that rooms were scarce and logistics would be difficult, but having successfully done a class in the middle of a barn I realized I could do one most anywhere. The problem I didn’t count on was more political in nature. A full day class didn’t fit into the usual categories. It was not a forum or a vendor table. Nobody knew what to do with the concept and things didn’t go anywhere the first year.

In 2010, the class was assigned to the Indoor Exhibits Chair, Scotty Myers, AC8DE. He was tremendous in working through many logistical issues until we both found something that worked. After rejecting options such as an offsite location or a tent in the flea market, we settled on a corner of the East Hall, one of the large exhibiter rooms. Despite having a 30 foot high ceiling and only a curtain to separate it from the sales area, I thought it was a workable arrangement. “But how will the students hear you in the noise?” I was asked. No problem. I’m a contester. I can scream CQ and give “59 Vermont” reports for 24 hours at a clip without breaking a sweat. Doing this for 6 hours is easy.

Next, there were many other logistics to deal with. The foremost was letting potential students know about the class. I got the word out with an announcement on the front of the Hamvention website. There are other activities announced in this manner, so it didn’t really set a new precedent. The problem was that folks usually don’t look at the website until a week before the event and by that time it is really too late to enroll. I kept my fingers crossed.

The next big problem was getting the students to the class on time. Those who have been to Hamvention know that it is a huge place with 20,000 people wandering around and parking that is challenging at best. The enrollment material I provided was stuffed with all types of pictures, satellite maps and details on where to park, what door to go into and warnings to allow an hour to get situated before class. I urged everyone to buy their tickets early and come on Friday to locate the training room so they would know where to go on Saturday morning. I also mentioned something about checking out potential equipment to purchase when they earned their licenses.

Hamvention Ham Class

Class day came and work began early. On setup day, my primary mission was to prepare the classroom. Setting up a physical class space is very important for student comfort and the eventual success of the class. I ended up arranging the room in a large “U.” I prefer this arrangement since it allows all students to see the teacher and board without another student’s head in the way. The “U” shape was also crucial in that it allowed me to get physically close to all students, an important factor with the high level of background noise. With the tables in place, I prettied up the room with covers on the tables, frequency charts on the walls and a small ham radio demonstration in front.

Saturday morning came and we were ready to begin. I was there early and like a good mother hen, I paced nervously, wondering if students would find parking, or if they would find the correct entrance or if they would even find the building. The early birds arrived and I started to feel relieved. Little by little, students trickled in. Just before the 9:00 start time, I did a quick head count 19 students. Hey everyone is here let’s get started.

Super Teacher and Gordo

I don’t remember much beyond that. In all classes, I go into automatic super teacher mode and tune out everything that doesn’t have to do with learning. Before I knew it, we were at lunch break. I was happy to see that everyone brought their lunch having been warned about the notorious long lines at the Hara Arena snack bars.

The time after lunch is always a challenging time in any class. After eating, folks have a tendency to be drowsy. I know that I would fall asleep in a class at this point. So the mission as an instructor is to do something unique to keep everyone’s interest. Fortunately, I was able to get Gordon West, WB6NOA, to come in and give a little mini lesson. Gordo came in and worked his magic and as I looked around the room, everyone’s faces lit up.

Then it was back to business and the race to make sure everyone learned everything they needed to know. It is very important to make sure all points of the lessons are covered and that everyone understands these points sufficiently. As a teacher, I look for that “fog” that floats around the students’ heads and that’s where you start. Unfortunately, with the shortened class time, there wasn’t much time for review.

Pass or Pickle

Ultimately, toward the end of class, I start hearing the musical question, “what happens if I don’t pass?” My answer takes the form of the infamous “blazing pickle” demonstration where 120 V is passed through a pickle making it glow and smoke. Then I’ll throw in a comment like, “this pickle had doubts too, but no more!” Miraculously, the questions about failing fade away.

Before I knew it, it was 4:00 and class was over. I worked out logistics with the VE team and they sent three examiners to the classroom. This was a lot easier than trying to explain to 19 frenzied students how to walk across the Hara Arena complex to find the exam room. By 5:00, as the staff was trying to get us to leave so they could secure the building, we counted the results 19 students 19 new hams. It doesn’t get better than that.

New Hams On the Loose

Sunday, as I made my way around the show, doing last minute shopping and saying goodbyes, I was particularly happy to see many of my students relaxing and working on procuring equipment for their new shacks. Many went over and visited Gordo to get his autograph on their “Passed” certificate and to hear the bicycle horn he blows to announce a new ham. The ear-to-ear smile I saw on each student certainly made all the hard work very much worth it.

When I got back from Dayton, I jotted down detailed thoughts about the class and shared them with the Hamvention committee. Having the class right in the midst of the exhibits was a winner. All day, curious hams and would-be hams would stop by and peak in at the proceedings. They all tracked me down later to find out how they could sign someone up for such a class. Promoting ham radio is always the key mission and there is no better way to do that than have potential hams see what a class entails.

The feedback I got from the class was that although students could hear me for the most part, there were times when the noise level made copy less than 5×9. I started thinking about running a linear amplifier (no not that type of amplifier a sound system amplifier) to cope with this. More importantly, I was very concerned about the weather. We had ideal weather in 2010, but it has been known to rain. When that happens, everyone crowds into the buildings and the heat and humidity rise to very uncomfortable levels. There needed to be a better plan.

Classroom Upgrades

The great news for 2011 was that we found a suitable room to hold the class. It was right by the back entrance of the arena. It had carpeting, paneling, its own bathroom and more importantly, was air conditioned. This new location would essentially solve all the issues we had in the open location. By planning the class well in advance, there was plenty of time to get students enrolled and supplied with materials. The good news and bad news was that the class filled up quickly. I contemplated doing some midnight carpentry work to move walls out to make a larger room, but thought better of it.

The new room worked out great. While temperatures hovered in the upper 80s, it was cool and comfortable in our classroom. The class was another huge success with a new crop of hams getting their licenses.

Running a ham radio class at a hamfest or convention is a wonderful way to attract new people and promote the hobby. For many, a hamfest is their only contact with ham radio. What about holding a class at other types of shows? There are many variables to consider, the first is whether the show is large enough to support a class and if there is a suitable space. The next most important item is the instructor. I can say with all honesty that someone who wants to teach a class at a hamfest should have his or her sanity questioned. I know, because I’ve questioned mine.

This venture is not unlike Field Day. So many things can and do go wrong creating problems for you, the teacher and all of your students, as well. It’s a job that should only be attempted by the most experienced of trainers who are unfazed by the problems that arise. When you pull it off, the great feeling you get is indescribable!

Photos by Mitch Stern, W1SJ.

Mitch Stern, W1SJ, an ARRL member, holds an Amateur Extra class license and has been licensed for 42 years. He has been teaching ham radio for 29 years and has trained nearly 1000 students to get their ham license. When not teaching, Mitch is active in contests, both HF and VHF and is also active in public service events, which have included the New York and Boston Marathons. He also finds time to attend a number of hamfests. Mitch is an electrical engineer and works as a broadcast engineer at several radio stations. In addition, Mitch teaches electronics, mathematics and computer techniques to high school, college and adult students. You can reach Mitch at 14 Kimberly Dr, Essex Junction, VT 05452-3002,