“Be very, very careful. If you touch it you’ll get burned,” said Keith Miller , retired from the Saint Paul Police force, and now a volunteer in the Washington Technology Magnet Middle School. It’s after school on a Monday afternoon and Miller was showing students how to solder.
“When the solder cools off, what happens?” Miller asked. Students answered, “It sticks together.”
The students belong to the Washington Radio Club where they are learning about wireless communication and using the ham radio system to broadcast. Now in its second year, the club is made up of eight students who are mentored by a group of mostly retired members of the Saint Paul Radio Club.
Volunteer Jay Maher, who works for University of Minnesota fisheries, began the class by demonstrating wavelength, resonance, and frequency through use of water in an aquarium, through students’ doing the wave as they do at Minnesota Twins games, and by using PVC pipes.
Later, the students went on the air to broadcast. They went on to a station called CQ, which serves as a sort of directory. With delight showing on their faces the students successfully made contact with someone in Florida, another ham radio operator in Idaho, and a retired teacher in Wisconsin. The week before they had talked to Russians in a tanker truck in Venezuela. The students keep a log of their contacts, then send out cards confirming they’ve sent the message, according to Allen Klein, retired state administrative law judge.
Twila Greenheck and her husband, Don, spearheaded the formation of the club at Washington middle school. They have been involved with amateur radio for 20 years through both the Saint Paul Radio Club and the national American Radio Relay League.
“There is only a small percentage of women in amateur radio,” said Twila. “There is a need to get more women involved in electronics.” Although two girls belong to the radio club at Washington, both were absent due to illness on the day I visited.
ARRL and the Saint Paul Radio Club purchased the radio equipment and donated it to the school. Denise Kapler, science and math teacher at Washington,, supervises the radio club. She is also a licensed ham operator, with training provided by the two groups.
A soon-to-be-installed wind turbine will eventually power the radio station, making it the first all-green radio club in the country.
While it is the only ham radio station operated by a school in Saint Paul Public Schools, it is not the first to operate at Washington. Twila Greenheck said that when the club sent out an e-mail recently, she received a response back that said there was a radio club at Washington in 1969, when it was a high school.
“It gives kids success where they haven’t found it before,” Kapler said of the radio club. The class is small on purpose to allow one on one interaction. Several of the volunteer/mentors said they see it as almost a grandparent/grandchild relationship.
Kapler calls the volunteer/mentors “God’s angels on earth…they have patience and kindness. They have a passion to share all they know.”
Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is a free lance writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.