Forward Thinking

The Classroom as a Forecast Center

Students in Katherine Straub’s Tropical Meteorology class use complex computer modeling to explore hurricanes and other weather phenomena.

As the Northern Hemisphere gears up for the Atlantic hurricane season, a class of earth and environmental science students wind down their research into tropical cyclone activity in the Southern Hemisphere. Since January, the students have been using large data sets and specialized computer programs to make tropical prediction models under the tutelage of Katherine Straub, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences.

The newly established, computer-intensive course, aptly named Tropical Meteorology, explores various weather phenomena, including monsoons, global warming and El Niño, but one-third of the course focuses on tropical cyclones, or hurricanes. “This is the first time as the real deal,” Straub says of the course, which was previously offered as a two credit seminar.

Now, as a 400-level class with prerequisite requirements of Introduction to Meteorology, Introductory Physics I and Calculus I, Tropical Meteorology can challenge students with complex computer modeling of hurricanes. “The students thought the math was pretty intense at first,” Straub says, “but I think they now understand how important it is in exploring how the atmosphere works.” The previous two-credit course had a high level of interest, but it did not rely on quantitative analysis or computer work for labs as this class does.

Michelle Siegel ’10 says the idea of taking large sets of data and breaking them down to create computer models of hurricanes was intimidating at first, but thanks to Straub, she soon felt at ease with the process. “The computer component of the class could have been so much harder if the wrong type of professor was teaching it,” she says. “Dr. Straub makes the learning environment so relaxed, and if we make a mistake, she is happy to help.”

Overall, the class provides students with the technical know-how to measure and predict atmospheric activities by focusing on a natural occurrence that hits headlines each year as it affects vacation plans and threatens personal safety and property. Ben Kopec ’10, who is looking to attend graduate school to research the effects of climate change on hydrology, says, “The computer component of the class is helping me develop the skills I may need for conducting computer modeling in graduate school, as well as showing me many of the processes behind how the atmosphere works.”


Contributing writers to The ‘Grove section are Karen Jones, assistant director of media relations, and Heather Cobun ‘10, a communications and political science major from Eldersburg, Md.

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