• Lackmann, G., 2011: Midlatitude Synoptic Meteorology: Dynamics, Analysis, and Forecasting. American Meteorological Society, 360 pp.

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    Screenshot of instructor’s lecture video annotations on map of pressure contours on 300-K isentropic surface. [Map from Rauber et al. (1994), 6th Conf. on Mesoscale Processes, preprints.]

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    Screenshot of active student poll (center) on jet streak dynamics along with instructor annotations during synchronous class session. Online environment is Blackboard’s Collaborate; jet streak conceptual map is from Lackmann (2011). Names obscured to protect privacy.

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Synoptic Meteorology in a Blended Online Environment: Results from UCAR and Member University Collaboration

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  • 1 University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
  • 2 Millersville University, Millersville, Pennsylvania
  • 3 University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
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© 2017 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: Andrea Smith, asmith5@ucar.edu

© 2017 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: Andrea Smith, asmith5@ucar.edu

In fall 2014, Millersville University (MU) partnered with the University Visits in Scientific Interaction and Teaching (UVisit) program within the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) to teach their senior-level synoptic meteorology lecture-laboratory in a blended format to explore offering upper-level meteorology partially online while accommodating staffing schedules. As far as the authors and many peers interviewed at the time of the course knew, this effort was one of very few blended, upper-level synoptic courses offered at U.S. universities. What follows summarizes the course format, highlights course outcomes and challenges encountered, and poses thoughts for future online or blended collaborations in upper-level meteorology courses. Finally, UCAR and partner efforts to enhance university–researcher interactions and support more online offerings are presented.

COURSE FORMAT.

The instructor, regularly employed with The COMET Program, traveled to teach on the MU campus for approximately 2.5 weeks, or about 20% of the course. This time was divided into the first calendar week of the semester and another 1.5 weeks in November. This schedule was chosen primarily based upon travel costs and regular employment schedule constraints. The instructor delivered the remainder of instruction and materials online in both asynchronous and synchronous sessions. Overall, there were 15 contact hours in person and 60 online, and course credit awarded was 3 lecture hours and 3 laboratory hours. Thirty-two seniors enrolled in the course.

Asynchronous assignments and materials included brief lecture videos, in which the instructor presented slides and annotated and narrated both theory and application using a tablet PC with stylus (Fig. 1). COMET modules covering relevant synoptic processes and weather forecasting topics, such as Frontogenetic Circulations and Stability, were regularly assigned, along with other readings from textbooks, AMS journals, and National Weather Service online resources. Regular homework assignments and laboratory explorations provided opportunities to hone knowledge and skills covered asynchronously during the week.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Screenshot of instructor’s lecture video annotations on map of pressure contours on 300-K isentropic surface. [Map from Rauber et al. (1994), 6th Conf. on Mesoscale Processes, preprints.]

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 98, 10; 10.1175/BAMS-D-15-00024.1

Eleven 90-min synchronous sessions took place weekly via Blackboard’s Collaborate web conferencing capabilities. These sessions provided an opportunity for the instructor to poll and gauge student opinion and understanding of concepts, as well as time for everyone to further discuss recent course materials and otherwise keep current with all course happenings (Fig. 2). Furthermore, student groups and the instructor presented 30-min briefings on current weather during each session.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Screenshot of active student poll (center) on jet streak dynamics along with instructor annotations during synchronous class session. Online environment is Blackboard’s Collaborate; jet streak conceptual map is from Lackmann (2011). Names obscured to protect privacy.

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 98, 10; 10.1175/BAMS-D-15-00024.1

CHALLENGES AND BENEFITS.

Arguably, one could expect weather briefings to be the most important aspect of any synoptic course. Student-led discussions with faculty advisement provide real-world experience and are critical to understanding weather systems in detail in any educational or professional setting. Attempting to replicate the face-to-face weather briefing experience in a web-conferenced environment proved difficult, however, for two main reasons:

  1. Animation capabilities: Internet connections and/or web conferencing software were not fast enough to follow the evolution of important weather features via animations. As a result, the class defaulted to using still imagery during weather briefings. This issue was encountered regardless of the web conferencing software and internet providers used. This hampered efforts to discuss important concepts that we can normally see in animations, such as accelerations and jet streak digging on satellite water vapor imagery, or how convective mode is changing on radar loops.
  2. Voice feedback and delay: Normally, about 25 individuals or small groups logged into synchronous sessions. More than two or three parties speaking at once resulted in voice delays. Thus, it became difficult for the instructor or students to interject with timely questions, comments, or suggestions during the weather briefings. Typing in the chat window helped alleviate this issue, but its usefulness was quite limited compared to speaking. This resulted in somewhat less rich and nuanced discussion of concepts.

These effects manifested in end-of-semester evaluations. A total of 20% of submitted teaching evaluations showed student free-response comments rating weather briefings as an essential part of synoptic meteorology education, but wishing they could have been more successful in the online sessions. In contrast, a few students mentioned that giving weather briefings with a tablet and stylus for annotations actually provided clearer understanding than one could find during a face-to-face briefing with mouse or pointer. Several wrote of their appreciation of recording the weather briefings so that they could revisit the concepts again.

OUTCOMES AND ASSESSMENT.

Final course grades were well within the usual normal distribution, with a mean of 83.1%, range of 73.6%−94.4%, and standard deviation of 6.4%. Direct comparisons of grades and outcomes with a similar face-to-face course taught by the same instructor were not possible, as previous instructors and their learning objectives varied. However, end-of-semester evaluations from 29 students do show quality ratings as compared to the departmental and school-wide averages, as well as free response commentary. Approximately 25% of submitted evaluations’ free-response comments showed students feeling that this type of course should be taught in a face-to-face setting only. Another 25% expressed mixed opinions, or suggestions for improving the experience. These evaluators praised things like flexibility in schedule and locale, and several noted that the ability to play back lecture videos to watch drawings or derivations again significantly enhanced understanding of concepts. These students suggested modifying the “blend” to have more face-to-face time. Some offered up what amounted to trying the course in a flipped mode, with lectures and materials to be completed online before attending the face-to-face sessions geared more toward tailored application and discussion of the week’s topics. Finally, about 20% of students expressed solely positive commentary.

Importantly, the average student ranking of overall course effectiveness, in terms of the class “challenging me to think,” “building understanding of concepts,” “enabling me to apply the skills learned,” and prompting students to “recommend the course to others” was 8.7 on a scale of 10 (where 10 is “strongly agree”). This figure was above the annual departmental course average of 8.1 and above the overall school average of 8.3. This suggests that although difficulties sometimes arose, the information and experience contained therein was still valued and relatively effective.

Future offerings of similar image- and data-heavy courses with synchronous session components will undoubtedly benefit from advances in telecommunication speeds, such as more widespread availability of fiber-optic connections. Continued improvements in collaborative online software, especially collaborative drawing features and instantaneous screen sharing and recording options, should also improve synchronous session discussion capabilities. Complex discussions and annotations of many types of weather imagery would then be possible in real time, allowing the format to rival that of face-to-face offerings.

FUTURE ONLINE COLLABORATIONS BETWEEN UNIVERSITIES AND UCAR/NCAR.

This partnership served as an important experience within Millersville's initiative to expand online and blended online offerings in the sciences, a main goal in its strategic plan, Our Bold Path. The partnership also reflected UVisit's continuing efforts to provide support to universities in ways that more easily accommodate the schedules of both university and UCAR/NCAR personnel.

UVisit recently created a new website, UMatch, where faculty at universities can easily find UCAR/NCAR’s staff of experts that are interested in connecting with the university community. This tool lists areas of expertise and types of university engagement in which each staff member is interested. University faculty looking to cover sabbatical leave or field project leave teaching duties, desiring additional expertise in specific areas, or simply looking for general outreach experiences are encouraged to visit the site at https://president.ucar.edu/university-relations/umatch.

The COMET Program is also expanding its product offerings to increase both face-to-face and virtual support of university courses. Recent expanded offerings include for-fee, expert guest-lecture sessions delivered via videoconference at member universities. The program is also developing for-fee, online laboratory packages that contain theory review sections, prelaboratory practice analysis activities, and customizable data and question sets for use in face-to face or online classrooms at any university.

As both research-focused and teaching-focused institutions continue to increase online, blended, and flipped offerings, teaching collaborations and institutional supports like the ones throughout this effort can serve as useful examples in the quest to successfully modify upper-level science courses for online or partially online environments.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The authors thank the staff of the UVisit program and Millersville Department of Earth Sciences for their assistance in arranging this teaching and learning opportunity, and in approving funding for travel and instructor salary, respectively. We also thank the three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and suggestions that improved the manuscript.

REFERENCE

Lackmann, G., 2011: Midlatitude Synoptic Meteorology: Dynamics, Analysis, and Forecasting. American Meteorological Society, 360 pp.

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