Weather education for a Weather-Ready Nation
Wherever you live in the United States, there’s a National Weather Service (NWS) forecast office near you. With over 160 local, regional, and national offices across the country, NWS experts are not only responsible for forecasting the weather, they also have opportunities to share their love of weather through local education and outreach. Whether talking with school children, leading storm spotter classes, or hosting student volunteers, each opportunity can be tailored to their community. Here, we share a window into weather forecast offices for a look at weather education across the nation.
NWS prepares communities for wild weather in North Dakota
“North Dakota is a land of extremes,” says John Paul “JP” Martin, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the Weather Forecast Office (WFO) in Bismarck. The record low is -60° F while the record high is 121° F. The year 2019, for example, was both the wettest year on record and also a significant drought for parts of the state. “How many places can say that?” asks Martin. Starting in 2006 when an oil boom created tens of thousands of jobs in North Dakota’s oil fields, people from all over moved to the state. During a SKYWARN Storm Spotter Program, Martin explains, “I was talking about blizzards, and someone from Puerto Rico raised his hand and asked, ‘What's a blizzard?’ I realized … of course! People are coming from areas where they’ve never seen a snowflake.” Like other forecast offices, WFO Bismarck relies on personal relationships within the community to get the word out about weather, partnering with groups ranging from service organizations and immigration support to scout groups and schools. “Kids are an important conduit for safety information,” Martin adds. “I always tell them, you need to go home and educate your parents. Now you have more knowledge about it than they do.”
“Mini courses” engage weather enthusiasts in Kentucky and beyond
Christine Wielgos, Lead Forecaster with the Weather Forecast Office in Paducah, Kentucky, has been with the National Weather Service for 20 years. In that time, she has done plenty of outreach. But after the pandemic started, “I just felt lost,” she says. “How else could we get out there and perform our mission?” Wielgos and others at WFO Paducah decided to offer “mini courses.” These two-hour virtual experiences allowed them to go into just enough detail on topics such as winter safety, extreme tornado risk, and using weather radar apps. These courses were a hit! “It was amazing to me how far-reaching the mini courses were,” says Wielgos. More than 500 people attended several of the courses, hailing from all over — including from other countries. From farmers who want to learn about winter weather, to weather enthusiasts and emergency managers, WFO Paducah encouraged everyone who attended the mini courses to take part in building a Weather-Ready Nation. “I always put a plug in. I push them to try to be ambassadors to push that information forward,” says Wielgos.
Student volunteers get hands-on weather forecasting training in West Virginia
Located in the heart of Appalachia, the Weather Forecast Office in Charleston, West Virginia, has been hosting student volunteers for about a decade. “It has been very successful,” says Robert Hart, Lead Forecaster with WFO Charleston. Each summer, they select two or three students, usually college juniors, seniors, or graduate students, to join the office for a summer. Students learn operational forecasting, participate in storm surveys after severe weather events, and try out non-meteorology roles alongside experts like electronics technicians. In just the last few years, five students who volunteered with the Charleston office have since been hired by the National Weather Service. But the students aren’t the only ones who benefit. “University meteorology programs are always changing, and sometimes there's a delay between when new advancements in technology and science are taught in the classroom and when they are implemented in the field office,” says Hart. “The students really help us stay up to date with that type of innovation. We learn just as much from the students as they learn from us.”
“Professor Weather” attends the virtual Wyoming Outdoor Weekend
“In Wyoming, we’re so wide open,” says Tim Troutman, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the Weather Forecast Office in Riverton. There’s a big focus on outdoor recreation in the state, he explains, which means it’s important that residents know how to stay safe from weather hazards. With indoor activities on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an even greater emphasis on outdoor weather safety this year. To help spread the word, Troutman assumed the persona of “Professor Weather,” which was created by the now-retired southern region NWS meteorologist, Dennis Cain. Troutman paired hands-on weather science demonstrations with hazard safety tips at the virtual 2020 Wyoming Outdoor Weekend and Education Expo. Held in May 2020, this event reached hundreds of students in Fremont County. “It’s a fun thing that I miss[ed] getting to do [in person] this year,” says Troutman, who was grateful technology still allowed him to participate virtually. Opportunities like this are important to him. “I’ve always been interested in working with students and teaching them about the weather,” says Troutman, “You never know who’s out there in the crowd — you might have the next generation of meteorologists.”
National Weather Service partners with the University of Nebraska
When Brian Barjenbruch was a master’s student at the University of Nebraska, he took a severe storms meteorology course taught by staff from the local Weather Forecast Office in Valley/Omaha. “When I was in school, I knew I wanted to be a forecaster,” says Barjenbruch. The operational forecasting aspect of this severe storms course was instrumental in his career. Now the Science and Operations Officer at WFO Omaha, Barjenbruch teaches the course himself — “a full circle,” as he says. The course takes place every other year, with the most recent class concluding virtually in spring 2020. Students gain operational forecasting skills, which is unique since, Barjenbruch says, “many students want to be forecasters, but the courses are often taught by research experts.” Some students who have taken the course have then volunteered with WFO Omaha or joined the office for a summer as a NOAA EPP/MSI or Hollings scholar. This partnership has also opened doors for WFO Omaha to connect with professors; when it’s safe to meet in person again, NWS Omaha plans to bring university staff and students to the forecast office to observe severe weather forecasting in action. “It’s really enjoyable to show the operational side of things,” says Barjenbruch. “I see myself having been in that class and … I teach toward what I would want to learn.”
New online weather education resources align with Iowa science standards
When schools went virtual in Iowa in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Weather Forecast Office in Des Moines created a virtual weather classroom. Kurt Kotenberg worked as a forecaster at WFO Des Moines before becoming the Warning Coordination Meteorologist in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “We looked around at resources, and we didn’t see anything on weather,” he says. “We knew we needed something that supported the science standards.” Responding to an urgent demand from parents and teachers, they posted resources on their website that are oriented towards the Iowa CORE Standards for K-12 education. They also hosted webinars on topics that are particularly relevant to the local agricultural community, like climate. “It truly was a team effort,” says Kotenberg. “This is something that hadn’t been attempted before [at our forecast office], and we worked as a team to pull it off. We’re filling a need that the National Weather Service can provide.”
These are just a handful of the many NWS education efforts taking place across the country. Find your local forecast and more by entering your zip code on www.weather.gov, and connect with weather education resources at www.weather.gov/learning.