Engaging Undergraduate Students in Collaborative Field Research with the U.S. National Weather Service: The SCORCHER Study

Erik Crosman Department of Life, Earth, and Environmental Sciences, West Texas A&M University, Canyon, Texas;

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Aaron M. Ward NOAA/National Weather Service, Amarillo, Texas;

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Stephen W. Bieda III NOAA/NWS Headquarters, Silver Springs, Maryland;

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T. Todd Lindley NOAA/National Weather Service, Norman, Oklahoma;

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Mike Gittinger NOAA/National Weather Service, Amarillo, Texas;

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Sandip Pal Department of Geosciences, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas;

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Hemanth Vepuri CoreLogic Solutions LLC, Oakland, California

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Abstract

While numerous collaborations exist between the atmospheric sciences research community and the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS), collaborative research field studies between undergraduate (UG) students at universities and the NWS are less common. The Summertime Canyon Observations and Research to Characterize Heat Extreme Regimes (SCORCHER) study was an UG student-driven research field campaign conducted in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas, United States, during the summer of 2021. The SCORCHER campaign was mainly aimed at improving our basic scientific understanding of extreme heat, public safety, and forecasting applications, and creating an empowering UG educational field research experience. This “In Box” article highlights the collaborative study design, execution, and lessons learned.

© 2023 American Meteorological Society. This published article is licensed under the terms of the default AMS reuse license. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Erik Crosman, etcrosman@wtamu.edu

Abstract

While numerous collaborations exist between the atmospheric sciences research community and the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS), collaborative research field studies between undergraduate (UG) students at universities and the NWS are less common. The Summertime Canyon Observations and Research to Characterize Heat Extreme Regimes (SCORCHER) study was an UG student-driven research field campaign conducted in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas, United States, during the summer of 2021. The SCORCHER campaign was mainly aimed at improving our basic scientific understanding of extreme heat, public safety, and forecasting applications, and creating an empowering UG educational field research experience. This “In Box” article highlights the collaborative study design, execution, and lessons learned.

© 2023 American Meteorological Society. This published article is licensed under the terms of the default AMS reuse license. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Erik Crosman, etcrosman@wtamu.edu

Numerous collaborations have occurred between the academic and research communities and the National Weather Service (NWS) in the last few decades (e.g., Kim et al. 2022). The Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology Education and Training (COMET) outreach program has supported more than 350 collaborative projects in the United States engaging NWS offices with over 100 U.S. universities. COMET has also become a “worldwide leader in geoscience education” (e.g., Dills et al. 2019). Waldstreicher (2005) found that improved NWS warning verification scores were associated with NWS offices who were involved in COMET collaborative research. In this article, we describe a novel collaborative COMET field study between undergraduate (UG) students and an adjacent NWS Weather Forecast Office (WFO).

In the last decade, there have been increasing efforts to integrate UG research experiences in the atmospheric sciences (e.g., Mullendore and Tilley 2014; Tanamachi et al. 2020; McNeal et al. 2022; Wurman et al. 2021) as well as UG internship experiences within the NWS (e.g., Green et al. 2021). The National Science Foundation has also increased funding to the Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) Sites Program (www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/), investing $1.12 billion (U.S. dollars) to support thousands of REUs between 2002 and 2017 (Charlevoix et al. 2022; McDevitt et al. 2020). However, collaborative field study–based research projects between UG students and the NWS remain uncommon (e.g., Sherburn et al. 2019), likely due in part to the challenges of involving UG students in field research.

It is well known that engaging UG students in geoscience fieldwork faces many obstacles, which often disproportionately affect students from racial and ethnic minorities or those with disabilities (Stokes et al. 2019; Abeyta et al. 2020; Giles et al. 2020). Accessibility of field research to an UG student, such as the student being available at a particular time and location when needed, depends on many factors such as distance to the field location and student training and background (Mead et al. 2019). The importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) research experiences on UG student retention rates, preparedness for employment after graduation, and graduate school success is well documented (Kelsey et al. 2015; Stofer et al. 2021). To the best of the authors’ knowledge, however, there has not been a sustained effort to incorporate UG field research experiences into NWS collaborative university partnerships.

In this “In Box” article, we summarize the design, execution, and lessons learned from an UG student-driven research field campaign supported through a COMET Outreach National Weather Service Partners program grant.

SCORCHER: A field campaign involving both NWS and undergraduate students

A COMET NWS Partners collaborative field study entitled Summertime Canyon Observations and Research to Characterize Heat Extreme Regimes (SCORCHER) was led by UG students at West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) in collaboration with Texas Tech University (TTU), and the NWS Amarillo WFO in Palo Duro Canyon State Park (PDCSP), in the Texas Panhandle, United States, between May and September 2021 (Fig. 1). West Texas A&M University is the primary university in the Texas Panhandle and is also a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) with over 25% of the undergraduate student enrollment being Hispanic since HSI designation was awarded in 2014.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Map of PDCSP showing the locations of 24 meteorological sensors during SCORCHER (May–September 2021). Yellow markers indicate student-deployed HOBO MX2302A temperature and humidity sensors (see photos in right inset) and blue markers indicate permanent Texas Tech University West Texas Mesonet weather stations. Elevation (m) is shown in white text. Green lines denote major trails. The red marker indicates the Windsond rawinsonde launch site.

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 104, 3; 10.1175/BAMS-D-22-0113.1

The study was developed with the overarching scientific goals of 1) improving understanding of spatiotemporal variations in extreme heat in PDCSP for NWS heat alert forecast products (e.g., heat advisories and excessive heat warnings) and 2) supporting the NWS delivery of timely and accurate impact-based decision support services (IDSS; Uccellini and Ten Hoeve 2019).

In designing the SCORCHER field campaign, both the scientific and educational goals were given equal importance. The study was developed to address the following research questions:

  • How can an observational measurements campaign be best designed to engage UG students?

  • What observational measurements can be conducted by UG students to improve the NWS’s scientific understanding and forecasting of extreme heat in PDCSP?

A unique aspect of this collaborative research is the relatively high importance given to the UG research experience. Between May and September 2021, the 13 UG students and 2 graduate students involved in the study collectively spent 22 days and 600 h of effort in the field. This included 7 days of training and installing sensors, 8 extreme heat intensive observational periods (IOPs), 4 non-IOP data collection days, and 3 days retrieving data at the end of the campaign (Fig. 2). The phases of the study included 1) planning and preparation of the field campaign, 2) sensor deployment and data collection during the field experiment, 3) data quality control and postprocessing, and 4) presentations at regional and national conferences. The UG students involved were approximately evenly split between male and female and between minority and nonminority students. The majors of the participating UG students involved were environmental science (9), biology (2), and engineering (2), with 11 students being either junior or senior classification (2 sophomore students). The results of the UG-led field campaign has provided valuable data and scientific understanding to support the NWS Amarillo WFO in their predictions of heat advisories within PDCSP. The scientific outcomes include an improved understanding of spatial variations (e.g., “hotspots”) in extreme heat within the PDCSP, and identification of the local, mesoscale, and synoptic weather conditions that are associated with extreme heat within the PDCSP. These outcomes can be used in concert with the two real-time West Texas Mesonet stations (Fig. 1) to improve NWS forecasts and analyses of extreme heat in the PDCSP. A comprehensive analysis of the study outcomes will follow in a subsequent scientific manuscript.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

SCORCHER field phase depicted via photographs taken during different times of the campaign in Palo Duro Canyon State Park illustrating involvement of WTAMU UG students.

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 104, 3; 10.1175/BAMS-D-22-0113.1

Through planning meetings with interested UG student participants, the NWS, and university partners, a path forward to support an UG student–centered field study that met the science and forecasting objectives of the NWS within the constraints of a small budget ($15,000) was developed.

Implementing a collaborative NWS and UG student field campaign

The six components implemented to ensure UG engagement during SCORCHER are summarized in Fig. 3: student funding, safety, accommodation, accessibility, training, and engagement. All these components were given equal priority with respect to their importance and roles in planning and implementing the field study.

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Schematic summarizing the six major components that were addressed when designing the SCORCHER UG student-focused field research study (inner chart) and some key study facts (outer text boxes).

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 104, 3; 10.1175/BAMS-D-22-0113.1

Adequate student funding was found to be a critical need when designing SCORCHER to be an UG-focused field study, because many students are required to work part- or full-time jobs outside of the university; this can make it difficult for UG students to allocate time to take part in scientific field campaigns, and students may be hesitant to volunteer their time for a scientific research experience that would benefit them professionally. Many students who would like to participate in unpaid or volunteer research experiences cannot do so for financial reasons. Providing competitive stipends can be an effective means for students to obtain permission from employers to rearrange their schedule. Providing paid internships for all student participants is also important from a diversity and inclusion standpoint. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found through their annual student survey that “racial/ethnic minorities, women, and first-generation students are all underrepresented in paid internships,” which are important for providing the real-world experience and resume building needed to secure jobs after graduation (Collins 2020). To meet the needed student funding, around 70% of the total project budget of $15,000 [obtained through a University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) COMET Outreach National Weather Service Partners program grant] went to paying UG student stipends. The remaining funds went to support low-cost-variety instrumentation and sensors, including 21 HOBO MX2302A temperature (accuracy ±0.2°C) and humidity (accuracy ±2.5%) sensors and a lightweight (Windsond.com) rawinsonde system (Bessardon et al. 2019). Despite their low cost, these sensors have been accurate, dependable, relatively easy to set up, and provide all of the data needed to achieve the overarching scientific goals.

Obviously, student safety should be a primary concern in any field study involving UG student researchers and a general risk assessment was conducted prior to implementing the study. Exposure risk to known unavoidable hazards (extreme heat, dehydration, driving risks, rattlesnake bites, and hiking injuries) were minimized as much as possible. All the UG students took driver safety training, were always in groups of two or more, and were overseen by a faculty advisor. The field vehicles were equipped with first aid kits, emergency water, and snake guards that students wore when hiking for sensor deployments. To avoid heat exposure, temperature and humidity sensors were installed by UG students (at 1 m height above ground) in early May 2021 prior to the onset of hot weather. Subsequent data collection the remainder of the summer occurred in the relatively cooler morning hours. Safe driving protocols, adequate emergency water supplies, and air-conditioned vehicles were provided to help ensure student safety. Students wore masks when in vehicles and distanced 6 ft (∼1.8 m) or more from each other in a large university van due to COVID-19 health considerations. A comprehensive emergency response plan included educating students on a range of potential hazards they could experience while in preparation, travel, and in the field (e.g., natural hazards including flash flooding, lightning, wildfires, heat exposure, and snake bites as well as other hazards such as traffic accidents and reckless drivers) and making sure the students knew what to do and who to contact in an emergency.

Student accommodation in terms of variable schedules and availability was another important factor to consider when facilitating UG student involvement. Because the extreme heat being measured occurred frequently, participating UG students’ schedules could be highly variable while still meeting NWS science data collection objectives. The location of the study, PDCSP, was also within a 1-h drive for all participants, allowing UG students to work part time each week (2–5 h) without needing to travel long distances. These aforementioned factors supported UG student research participation while limiting disruptions to their normal routine, such as would occur for field campaigns in more remote locations or for infrequent atmospheric events. Because the days with extreme heat were relatively easy to forecast 5–7 days in advance by the NWS, this allowed student researchers ample time to request leave from regular day jobs and adjust their schedules accordingly. Because the study was conducted at the end of the spring semester, UG students could take part in the study immediately after finals without missing any classwork. This allowed students to participate even if they were not planning to remain at the university during the summer break.

For student accessibility and training, the SCORCHER study was designed so that the research goals, instrument deployment, and data collection efforts were developed to be easily completed by STEM students with an UG sophomore or higher education level, with no prior field research experience or technical training required. All students took part in a 2-h training course before the fieldwork, as well as 1–2 h of training in the field during deployment of the instruments. This ensured that all the UG students were prepared to participate in the data collection efforts. The UG students were from three science majors (environmental science, biology, and engineering). The study training and design was developed so every student, regardless of their prior experience with environmental sampling and instrumentation felt confident in doing field work after training. The simple documentation and user-friendly instrumentation used in this study assisted in simplifying the required training before the UG students could be successfully engaged the field research. Often, research and field studies in atmospheric science by necessity involve the use of complex instrumentation and sophisticated technical procedures that can make involvement for less-experienced students daunting and of limited benefit to the student at their stage of technical development.

The primary instrumentation used in the study was also very accessible to students (installing sensors, programming and downloading the data) with approximately 1 h of training. The 21 HOBO MX2302A wireless temperature and humidity sensors were deployed by students across various elevations of PDCSP in May 2021 (Fig. 1). Students took part in all aspect of installing, testing, downloading, and analyzing data from the HOBO sensors. The HOBO MX2302A dataloggers had approximately a month of storage capacity at 2-min intervals (data were collected at intervals between 1 and 5 min depending on the station accessibility), and were visited by students at intervals ranging between 1 and 4 weeks to replace batteries, download data, and to make sure the loggers were recording correctly. In a few cases, the sensors stopped recording or batteries failed, but data collection was over 90% successful despite the HOBO sensors not being able to be monitored in real time. Thus, students could learn about and be part of the development, testing, and implementation of the field data collection. Students also participated in conducting mobile temperature and humidity observations and rawinsonde launches.

Robust student engagement in this NWS-funded UG field study was a natural outcome of adequate efforts to make sure that the other components—student funding, safety, accommodation, accessibility, and training—were met. All of the other five components worked symbiotically to enhance student engagement. Having a project that is highly flexible, with adequate training, accessibility, and safety, where students know that they are fully capable of taking part in every aspect of the project and that they are completing the most important tasks, is highly conducive to enhanced student enthusiasm and satisfaction with their research experience. The students also worked closely in teams, which further strengthened UG student bonding with each other and the overall data collection effort.

Summary and lessons learned

A low-cost but effective collaborative study between a minority-serving UG institution and an adjacent NWS WFO was successfully implemented through the use of six components (student funding, safety, accommodation, accessibility, training, and engagement) to help support UG participation. We believe that by maximizing the physical accessibility (study location is 30 min from the university) and technical accessibility (simple training and easy-to-implement data collection procedures), as well as providing financial support and accommodating the highly variable schedules of part- or full-time-working college students, the engagement of the UG students in the research was maximized.

We strongly believe that future studies that support UG participation in field research for operational meteorology should comprehensively interview and survey the participating students for pre- and poststudy expectations and outcomes. A detailed study design template for UG student–centered collaborative operational forecasting and academic field studies in the atmospheric sciences is also recommended, such as is found in the UFERN tool in the biosciences (O’Connell et al. 2022). The students who participated in this study remained positive about the study outcomes, with many expressing how much of an impact it made on their motivation for science and research in general. At least two students indicated that they were inspired to pursue graduate studies because of their involvement in this study, and three of the UG students presented research posters following this study (one poster at the 2022 American Meteorological Society Annual Student Conference and two posters at the 2022 Texas A&M Pathways Research Symposium). We also are cognizant of the fact that we addressed only a fraction of the challenges facing UG student participation in atmospheric science field campaigns. Certainly, many additional improvements to involve UG students in collaborative research projects with the NWS or otherwise could be recommended. We support the development of a suite of partners projects between smaller regional universities (with a focus on minority-serving institutions) and nearby NWS offices, since smaller regional universities are often less equipped to participate in large funded scientific field campaigns. We would also recommend future studies implement strategies to both recruit and specifically target the success of underrepresented students.

Acknowledgments.

A University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) COMET Outreach National Weather Service Partners program grant (Award 961807203) funded this study. Coauthor SP was supported by NOAA Grant NA21OAR4590361 awarded to TTU. We gratefully acknowledge the input of three anonymous reviewers, which significantly improved the paper. The authors are appreciative of the support of the Texas State Parks and Superintendent Joseph Allen and Assistant Park Superintendent Jeff Davis, as well as all the staff at the park. The support of John Schroeder, Wesley Burgett, and the West Texas Mesonet (WTM) stations in the Palo Duro Canyon State Park is deeply appreciated. The student researchers whose hard work made this study possible are Adriana M. Rademacher, Andrew Alarcon, Cristian Campos, Suzan Chassande-Baroz, Daniel Crawford, Mari Ferrel, Monica Ghosh, Jed McInroe, Cecilia Rizcallah, Tiffany Rooney, Brittany Rooney, Glen Schneider, and Stephanie Simonsen. The additional support of a West Texas A&M University Kilgore research grant for several of the weather sensors is also acknowledged.

Data availability statement.

Meteorological data collected for the SCORCHER field campaign are available upon request from the corresponding author.

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Save
  • Abeyta, A., A. M. Fernandes, R. Mahon, and T. Swanson, 2020: The hidden cost of field education is a barrier to diversifying geosciences. 2020 Fall Meeting, Online, Amer. Geophys. Union, Abstract EP011-01, https://agu.confex.com/agu/fm20/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/688144.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bessardon, G. E. Q., K. Fosu-Amankwah, A. Petersson, and B. J. Brooks, 2019: Evaluation of Windsond S1H2 performance in Kumasi during the 2016 DACCIWA field campaign. Atmos. Meas. Tech., 12, 13111324, https://doi.org/10.5194/amt-12-1311-2019.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Charlevoix, D. J., A. R. Morris, K. Russo-Nixon, and H. Thiry, 2022: Engaging two-year college students in geoscience: Summer pre-REU internships and professional development to prepare students for participation in research. J. Geosci. Educ., 70, 323338, https://doi.org/10.1080/10899995.2021.1977770.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Collins, M., 2020: Open the door: Disparities in paid internships. National Association of Colleges and Employers, 1922, www.naceweb.org/diversity-equity-and-inclusion/trends-and-predictions/open-the-door-disparities-in-paid-internships/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dills, P., A. Stevermer, T. Mancus, B. Guarente, T. Alberta, and E. Page, 2019: COMET’s education and training for the worldwide meteorological satellite user community: Meeting evolving needs with innovative instruction. ISPRS Int. J. Geoinf., 8, 311, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijgi8070311.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Giles, S., C. Jackson, and N. Stephen, 2020: Barriers to fieldwork in undergraduate geoscience degree. Nat. Rev. Earth Environ., 1, 7778, https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0022-5.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Green, T. A., Jr., D. Leins, G. M. Lackmann, J. Morrow, and J. Blaes, 2021: The National Weather Service–North Carolina State University Internship Course: Impacts and success over a generation. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 102, E2079E2085, https://doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-20-0260.1.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kelsey, E., C. Briedé, K. O’Brien, T. Padham, M. Cann, L. Davis, and A. Carne, 2015: Blown away: Interns experience science, research, and life on top of Mount Washington. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 96, 15331543, https://doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-13-00195.1.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kim, J., A. A. Seate, B. F. Liu, D. Hawblitzel, and T. Funk, 2022: To warn or not to warn: Factors influencing National Weather Service warning meteorologists’ tornado warning decisions. Wea. Climate Soc., 14, 697708, https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-20-0115.1.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McDevitt, A. L., M. V. Patel, and A. M. Ellison, 2020: Lessons and recommendations from three decades as an NSF REU site: A call for systems‐based assessment. Ecol. Evol., 10, 27102738, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6136.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McNeal, P., W. Flynn, C. Kirkpatrick, D. Kopacz, D. LaDue, and L. Maudlin, 2022: How undergraduate students learn atmospheric science: Characterizing the current body of research. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 103, E389E401, https://doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-20-0023.1.

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  • Fig. 1.

    Map of PDCSP showing the locations of 24 meteorological sensors during SCORCHER (May–September 2021). Yellow markers indicate student-deployed HOBO MX2302A temperature and humidity sensors (see photos in right inset) and blue markers indicate permanent Texas Tech University West Texas Mesonet weather stations. Elevation (m) is shown in white text. Green lines denote major trails. The red marker indicates the Windsond rawinsonde launch site.

  • Fig. 2.

    SCORCHER field phase depicted via photographs taken during different times of the campaign in Palo Duro Canyon State Park illustrating involvement of WTAMU UG students.

  • Fig. 3.

    Schematic summarizing the six major components that were addressed when designing the SCORCHER UG student-focused field research study (inner chart) and some key study facts (outer text boxes).

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