A look back: What does it take to be an operational meteorologist? Students learned tools of the trade from the NWS

Meteorology students face plenty of career choices: should they go into broadcast, research, or operational forecasting? Each track offers a very different experience. And while students are exposed to broadcasters on television and researchers at their universities, it can be a challenge for them to experience operational forecasting.

Topeka Weather Forecast Office meteorologists used a new team approach to teaching a University of Kansas operational forecasting class.

Topeka Weather Forecast Office meteorologists used a new team approach to teaching a University of Kansas operational forecasting class. (Image credit: Ariel Cohen/NOAA)

Operational forecasting involves generating weather forecasts that people use to make decisions, from the daily choice of whether or not to carry an umbrella to life-or-death decisions about whether to issue evacuation orders. This branch of meteorology is the bread and butter of the National Weather Service, which is responsible for generating daily forecasts at over 120 local offices around the country.

When the University of Kansas needed to fill a teaching spot for an operational meteorology course, they reached out to the local National Weather Service Topeka Weather Forecast Office (WFO). Former Science Operations Officer Ariel Cohen accepted the challenge and set out to design a course that would give undergraduate students a window into life as an operational forecaster at the National Weather Service.

Operational forecasting involves a variety of skills, so Cohen suggested a team-teaching approach. The idea behind the approach was simple: each of the six instructors brought different perspectives, knowledge, and skills. With a wide variety of subject matter expertise at their disposal, the students were exposed to a wealth of information about practical and theoretical meteorology that they otherwise wouldn’t have experienced in a university setting.

The students explored basic operational meteorology and applied it to real-world case studies. They practiced Impact-based Decision Support Services (IDSS), which includes forecast advice and interpretative services to help partners, such as emergency personnel and public safety officials, make decisions when weather, water, and climate affect people’s lives and livelihoods. The instructors guided students through the process of simulating operational roles at a WFO, creating terminal aerodrome forecasts for severe weather situations at airports, hand-drawing maps for mesoscale surface analysis, and compiling radar case studies.

Instruction on subjects like IDSS introduced students to the importance of interpersonal communication and collaboration. Using theories and concepts learned from other classes, this course taught them how to apply their knowledge to real-world situations and helped them understand the advantages of teamwork.

“I really like how engaged you were in making sure we learned the material. I love how many different things we learned about," said one student. Students were able to build a professional network with the forecasters for future career opportunities and growth. One student got a Pathways opportunity with NWS. Another, in reflecting specifically on the value of having multiple instructors, said, “I think it was great to have different people come in and teach on the importance of their department. It was very informational.” A professor from the university who oversaw the course sat in and observed each of the classes, simply out of personal interest and curiosity about the subject matter.

Throughout this course, the National Weather Service and the University of Kansas established a relationship and a methodology that will help to train the next generation of forecasters.

A version of this story was featured in the Fiscal Year 2019 NOAA Education Accomplishments Report.