Meteorological field work: life changing experience, or “glorified road trip”?

Do field experiences really matter that much to meteorology students? You bet, and I’ve got evidence! My more ardent followers may recall that in 2016, Dr. Dan Dawson and I started a ‘storm chasing’ course called “Students of Purdue Observing Tornadic Thunderstorms for Research”, or SPOTTR for short. We want students to get a taste of what severe storms field work is like, so we incorporate all the elements of a real field program, including research-quality instruments. SPOTTR has grown very popular over the past four years, to the point where we have students apply by essay for a limited number of slots.

I’ve taken my first foray into the world of Atmospheric Science Education Research (ASER) with a new paper on SPOTTR in the June electronic edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. In this paper, I seek to answer the questions,

  • “Can a storm-centered field experience help students learn meteorology?”
  • “Does SPOTTR improve students’ career aspirations and confidence in their meteorology skills?”
  • “Is SPOTTR a worthwhile investment of time and resources?”

The last question was actually my primary motivation for writing the paper. SPOTTR is an expensive class to run. We travel thousands of miles, requiring vehicle rental and fuel, multiple nights’ lodging, rental of a radar truck when feasible, and the purchase of expendables like radiosondes and helium. After the first SPOTTR course, questions arose regarding whether the expenses were worthwhile for such a short-but-intensive experience. (SPOTTR is a four-week class, including a one-week field trip).

I looked to my geology colleagues, for whom field camp is considered an indispensable capstone experience. Geologists have produced copious literature in both geoscience and education journals showing what formative and valuable experiences field camps can be. I pondered how to quantify the benefits of SPOTTR in a similar way. I was already aware of basic Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) tools through my attendance at teaching workshops. I reached out to some of my colleagues in education research for help. I was introduced to Dr. Loran Carleton Parker, a former EAPS graduate herself, who has since gone on to become the director of Purdue’s Education and Learning Research Center. She was excited to help me evaluate SPOTTR.

Together, we modified a survey she had developed for undergraduate research experience program to apply specifically to aspects of the SPOTTR course. Our experiment design involved giving mostly similar pre- and post-course surveys to the students, and then calculating the change (delta) in the students’ responses before and after participating in SPOTTR. The questions asked the students about their confidence in their forecasting, storm observation, and presentation skills, as well as larger-picture questions such as their career aspirations and intentions to go to graduate school (for the undergraduates). We first deployed the survey in the 2017 SPOTTR class using pencil and paper, then switched to an online survey in 2018 and 2019.

After giving the survey for three consecutive years to a total of 18 students, I finally felt confident enough in the results to submit them for peer review. The results were compelling as well as gratifying: students reported across the board that SPOTTR participation had increased their severe weather forecasting skills, their awareness of meteorology career paths, and their confidence in their ability to participate in future field programs effectively. Additionally, the undergraduate students reported an increase in their intentions to attend graduate school. In particular, I want to draw readers’ attention to Figs. 6 and 7 of the paper, which graphically illustrate these gains. Clearly, this four-week course made an enormous difference in the students’ aspirations. The investment of time, resources, and energy was indeed worth the expense associated with running the course. Case closed.

This paper is my first refereed article in the area of ASER. Needless to say, becoming a professor in 2015 made me acutely aware of how much I had to learn about teaching and learning. I taught a large, lower-division course on severe weather when I was a graduate student, but teaching upper-division undergraduates and graduate students was a whole different ball game. I dove into a multitude of literature on evidence-based practices for good teaching, and reflected extensively on positive teaching experiences I’d had as a student myself, many years ago. I’m still learning to teach, and with every course I profess, I believe I learn as much from my students as they do from me.

Ironically, in light of these positive results, this year SPOTTR was cancelled by the novel coronavirus pandemic. We had to tell six very disappointed students who submitted thoughtful applications to be part of this year’s cohort that the course would not be taking place owing to university-wide restrictions on travel. As I’ve described previously, it was simply irresponsible for us to take the trip when we could unintentionally transport a deadly illness around with us.

This summer, instead of teaching SPOTTR, I’ve poured my time into thinking about how to develop a remote track for SPOTTR. By incorporating things like canned online chase modules, we could pandemic-proof the course and avoid the disappointment of 2020. I also want to incorproate video streaming and live chat in order to expand SPOTTR’s reach to students who can’t physically accompany us on the field trip due to a variety of constraints, including disabilities. Adding this remote track will be a significant undertaking, and I’m planning to applying for external funding to develop it. Stay tuned!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.