I grew up on a dairy farm and was in 4-H (though I preferred the electricity side to the dairy cow side). There was a wonderful freedom in my elementary, middle, and high schools. I have many of the same stories of things I did that were questionable :-) I also have many stories of useful, valuable, educational things that I did that are not allowed or are difficult to do today.
Our pursuit of apparently 100% safety is often an obstacle. People do not learn if you wrap them in bubble wrap and lock them in a padded room! They don't call it "the school of hard knocks" for nothing...
HOAs are an obstacle (to antennas, construction of scientific gear, and to many other things that do not conform to a particular aesthetic).
There is also a social pressure not to do certain engineering/scientific/geeky/uncool/unpopular things simply because it is less normal. And why is that? Because it's harder to do! There is a Catch-22 here. And it's a matter of opinion, by the way...
To answer the original question...both are true. But it seems to be harder to be both :-)
I hope that's not true at the university level. When I was a student, I taught a junior electronics lab course in which the students had to prepare in advance, with their own schematic (IC and transistor part numbers and R & C values included), and on lab day they would go into the stockroom, get their parts, and build a test a circuit.
I figured I was doing my job well if I could sit at my desk for the full 4 hours and do my own homework, and not be bothered with silly questions like "is this lead the emitter, the base, or the collector?"
Stuff like these, we can only watch in some clunky movies. The classrooms and labs have all gotten cleaner with a/c and neat set of drawers with prefabricated devices. Just plug them into the circuit and check the waves on the oscilloscope. that's lab for you.
Too funny David, my high school physics teacher did the exact same demonstration, but used himself as the test subject (he had fairly long hair as well).
In high school chemistry, whatever the lab experiment was that week, we often managed to supplement it with the experiment of dropping sodium metal into a flask of HCl, then covering the flask opening with a baloon and doing a "what caused the Hindenberg to explode?" demonstration.
These days, I doubt a physics teacher would be allowed to even have a Van de Graaf in the classroom, and I don't think chemistry students even get to use real chemicals anymore :(
Radio HAM is a good hobby related with communication technology. Those who have interest in circuits building testing and communicating with HAM family can easily enter into this and leisurely develop their skills. It needs a percentage of your earnings spent in the begining stage for a couple of years to establish strongly.
The answer to the leading question in the article is very hard to call. For me, I had my General class amateur license as well as a Class D license to be a commercial radio announcer before I had an engineering degree :-). I as able to play with stuff in kit form, or scrounge through radio parts at a local store to try and build something, or better yet...getting hold of some military surplus radio gear and modifying it. Because of the hobby, I was given the opportunity to resurrect and modify an ancient Gates AM transmitter with 250W triode tubes to become a CONELRAD transmitter for the local radio station. Talk about fun when that thing finally came back to life! Who remembers CONELRAD and what it was for?
So for me, the hobby clearly lead to an EE degree, but the interest in all things electric/electronic pervaded all.
Kudos to your workmate who wants to get his hands "dirty". Starting with GDOs he may eventually get to transceivers. The idea is to learn from what you struggle to achieve. As you point out, most would rather purchase than learn how to do it themselves.
"Gate Dip Oscillator" unless you really do use a vacuum tube instead of a FET. I still have a Heathkit GDO that uses a 6CW4, and it still works, or did the last time I turned it on.
Good thing that sodium did not blow up in your pocket. (Radioactive Balls is better than Noballs) I think many of us can remember youthful episodes in which we were darn lucky to survive, or at least to not get caught by the cops.
As for the girl with the long blond hair, today the parents would be crying "Sue, Sue, Sue" - and her name is not Sue...