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In the age of satellites, cell towers and web servers, CMU offers amateur radio course

CMU radio students gather around a folding table outside
Tom Zajdel
Carnegie Mellon University assistant teaching professor Tom Zajdel demonstrates during a radio broadcasting class.

Carnegie Mellon University first offered the Introduction to Amateur Radio course to aspiring student radio operators in spring 2022. Students learn not only the technical skills necessary for basic construction and use of amateur radio, or ham radio, but also the history and culture, dating back to the early 20th century, when the U.S. Radio Act of 1912 guaranteed the use of the electromagnetic spectrum to the public.

“I think it's one of the very unique things about ham radio: It's a people thing,” said former course student and Carnegie Tech Radio Club president Anish Singhani. “At its core, it's about the people.”

Amateur radio in the advanced technological age

In the 21st century — years past the advent of smartphones and the internet — ham radio may seem like an obsolete form of communication, but assistant teaching professor Tom Zajdel explained that amateur radio is still evolving and improving. While new technologies have asserted themselves in the sphere of wireless communication, Zajdel believes amateur radio is around for the long haul.

“Ham radio’s death has been predicted many times, but it changed a lot and evolved,” Zajdel said. “[It] used to just be Morse code, like that was your only option. Then, vacuum tubes were a thing, so you could modulate your voice … The technology keeps changing.”

“Now you can do digital communication modes using encoding schemes and compression schemes that were unheard of 20 years ago,” Singhani said.

The technological developments in amateur radio aren’t the only thing keeping it alive. Behind the science of soldering an FM transmitter and bouncing radio waves off the atmosphere lies a technical art that never gets old to the operators.

“Amateurs like building their own equipment, and there's just a lot of pride in kind of making your own thing — can I make the antenna super-small, super-lightweight, really efficient?” Zajdel posed. “It's just really neat to see the art coming in that way.”

The amateur radio course gives CMU students the chance to connect with operators across Pittsburgh on the air; Singhani says it also strengthens personal connections across the CMU community.

“One of my favorite parts of being the president of this club has been collaborating with all of these other groups on campus that we provide radio communications for,” Singhani said. “I've worked with all of these different groups that do all these different things, but in some way or another, I've been able to help them out with [their] radio services.”

100 years of Buggy race communications

Zajdel offers extra credit to students who make use of their radio education outside of the course curriculum, such as with CMU’s Carnegie Tech Radio Club. The club, which operates out of the tower atop Hamerschlag Hall, has been operating for 110 years. Members are encouraged to explore whatever aspect of ham radio they find most compelling.

“We have people that are very interested in the contacting and contesting side, where we try to put up an antenna into a tree,” said Singhani, “and then we have some people that are more interested in the engineering side. So we have a couple of more electronics-focused projects going on.”

Every year, CMU holds the student-led relay race Buggy, where drivers steer compact, engineless vehicles around Flagstaff Hill. In the background, handling radio communications for the event for more than 100 years, are the ham operators of Carnegie Tech Radio Club.

“Historically, when [Buggy] got started, radios were a lot less efficient, and it was also the only way to communicate over this kind of a course,” Singhani said. “Nowadays, it's more that the Radio Club has this institutional experience with, ‘How do you run an efficient net’ and, ‘How do you convey information across the radio as quickly as possible?’”

The club fosters a community of ham operators whose passion for the radio keeps them around, even after graduation.

“Alumni come back for [Buggy] to participate in and help do the communications for that event,” Zajdel said. “People who were in the club when they were at CMU as students, they come back. And they come back for years and years and years, especially if they're still in the area.”

Thomas is a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a double major in Politics and Philosophy and English Writing. They are currently the opinions editor at The Pitt News, the content manager for Policy and Political Review and a head writer for Pitt's best and only late night talk show, Pitt Tonight.