Something For A Rainy Day

June 01, 1990 8 min read

David Jorgensen, 10, is monitoring the progress of this meteorological monster--a mass of cold air that shows up on a computer screen as icy blue. Everything on the other side of the purple frontal boundary is still warm--yellow and red. But not for long. Not if those arrows--the wind-- have anything to do with it.

“That weather’s going downhill, and the wind is blowing it in this direction,’' says David, whose bright yellow baseball cap seems to be a permanent fixture on his head, indoors or out. “It’s probably a mixture of things, but I’d guess that snow will come to us tonight.’'

The fact that the National Weather Service was forecasting rain didn’t discourage David, who stuck to his guns. The next day, most of the Hartford-area schools were closed. It was a snow day.

Look out, Willard Scott.

David, a student at the Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon, Conn., was merely demonstrating the formidable capabilities of the Accuweather Forecaster--a sort of ultimate Nintendo game for climatology buffs. It plays a starring role in the science center’s topical new weather education project that is, like the weather itself, a mixed bag.

On one level, it is a live television program broadcast by satellite to schools throughout the Northeast; on another, a long-term classroom study of the weather, through the use of time-honored tools--rain gauges, cloud charts, and all manner of whirling doodads--paired with advanced computer technology.

Dan Barstow hopes students and teachers will make good use of all the climate technology, but particularly the newly christened Regional Student Weather Network. He, along with local meteorologist Bill Danielson are the nervously smiling co-hosts of the biweekly television broadcast, which is, Barstow says, “the glue that holds all the pieces together.’'

Founded in 1967 to serve a handful of local towns as a science resource center for their schools, the nonprofit facility’s influence now extends well beyond the rumpled lowlands of central Connecticut. Funded by grants, Talcott Mountain is now a regional center whose sole purpose is science education. Many local students still come to the mountain for weekend workshops on everything from astronomy to chronobiology (the study of body rhythms), and a talented few-- David, for example--attend the center’s own on-site academy full time. But if students and teachers can’t come to the mountain, the mountain will come to them, through science videotapes and satellite broadcasts, which began in 1984.

Even by the center’s own ambitious standards, the new weather network is something else again. Not many shows of any kind, educational or otherwise, are live; this one is. But there’s another twist. In this show, viewers talk back. They phone in questions and turn in folksy reports on local weather conditions. Sort of like Larry King, but with frost warnings.

It is the morning of the show’s inaugural broadcast, back in early March. About half of the 80 schools that ultimately will be selected to participate in the program are tuned in. Danielson is trying to find Boyertown, Pa., on a wall map of the nine Northeast states that receive the center’s signal. A teacher there is phoning in a report on local weather conditions. Only one problem: Where is Boyertown? Danielson’s blue marker pen hovers uncertainly between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. The caller sounds like he’s giving long-distance directions on how to hang a picture: “Over to the left a little bit, over, over, now back again....’'

Danielson’s pen at last settles somewhere near Carlisle, certainly not Boyertown, but the teacher, laughing, says it’s close enough.

Another teacher calls in to report light cloud cover over Trumbull, Conn., with winds from the west, and temperatures near 50 degrees. Danielson dutifully jots down all the information--making a mark on the map that looks like a cross between an eighth note and a crow’s foot--and moves on to the next caller. This time it’s a girl named Cheryl, from West Hartford, playing Stump The Weatherman: “What causes fog to disappear?’' (Answer, according to Danielson: the warmth of the sun and the occasional shove from a stiff breeze.)

And so it goes for an hour, as more than a dozen students and teachers, grades 5-12, pepper Danielson with questions about surface wind speed, barometric pressure, and relative humidity. Barstow, meanwhile, demonstrates the Accu-weather Forecaster, sometimes to help answer questions, but mainly to show students and teachers how the software might be used in the classroom. Later broadcasts will also make use of the center’s own sophisticated Doppler radar, which provides advance warning of approaching storms within a 300-mile radius of the mountain.

(The Doppler, in particular, is so sensitive, Barstow says, that during bad weather, science center employees often check the screen before leaving for lunch. That way they can time their departure to coincide with a 5- or 10-minute-long break in the clouds.)

Later, with their first telecast well behind them, Barstow and producer Willi Runk can kick back and grin like a couple of guys who have ridden out a tornado and emerged unscathed from the root cellar. True, the show had its rough spots. The Doppler wasn’t up and running, and a video overlay card, which will transfer the image on Barstow’s computer onto the television screen, also was not working. And they know they’ll have to brush up on their geography. However, every school seemed to receive the signal, and there were few problems with the crew, some of whom are students at the center’s academy. Over all, a nice balance.

“On the one hand, we have all these diverse elements coming in--the phone calls, the map, the Accu-weather Forecaster. And you have people who are not used to performing before cameras,’' says Runk, whose gran- ny glasses and handlebar moustache give him the look of a German mercenary (his role in weekend re-enactments of Revolutionary War battles). “On the other hand, you don’t want the thing to look so slick that it doesn’t seem real.’'

That the weather network is, by design, a little rough around the edges is a quality that appeals to Runk.

“It’s live and interactive,’' he says. “And that adds an excitement and an immediacy that contributes to its instructional value. You literally see things as they develop.’'

That “loose is more’’ philosophy also applies to the broader classroom study that will accompany the show, adds Barstow. “Our role is to provide a structure for study,’' he explains, “but part of the inherent design is to allow for flexibility.’'

The center, which received $371,000 in federal grant money for the project, is picky, however, about who it accepts into the program. Schools in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont are eligible to apply, but they must have a welldeveloped plan and the means to receive the telecast.

“We’re looking for an aboveaverage commitment,’' says Barstow. “Our preference is that they have a satellite dish. About a third of our schools do.’' Others, he says, either receive the signal courtesy of their local cable provider or use the satellite facilities of a local business, hotel, or conference center. So far, more than 300 schools have applied, and some are willing to pay cash to receive what others will receive for free.

By far, the most valuable component of the program is the Accu-weather Forecaster software. It allows unlimited access, by computer modem, to constantly updated weather information--all the basic raw bits of data, Barstow explains, that the professionals use to piece together forecasts. And he should know. Before he came to Talcott Mountain, Barstow created the forecaster for Accu-weather, the private, Pennsylvania-based weather forecasting service.

The software seems to put all the world’s weather patterns into motion. Bright, wavy color bands roll across on-screen maps of the United States-- or anyplace else, for that matter--to illustrate a range of temperatures and high- and low-pressure areas, wind speed and direction, and surface barometric pressure. It can furnish detailed weather forecast information worldwide, and it even provides users with a “sky box’’ view of Earth, with realtime weather satellite images.

“There are two ways, basically, to use this with kids,’' Barstow explains. “They can analyze raw data and draw a weather map showing cloud cover, precipitation, frontal boundaries, and so on. Then, they make their own forecast. Or, they can call up the forecast for a given area and ask why.’'

For instance, he continues, Yuma, Ariz., might be setting a record high of 95 degrees on a day in late winter. What combination of factors accounts for this unseasonable weather?

Local children who attend the center’s on-site academy for scientifically gifted elementary school students were among the first to put the software through its paces. Although some educators might wince at the comparison, for these children using the forecaster is more like playing a popular video game than doing school work.

One, the diminutive Megan North, 10, is firm in her opinion: The Accuweather Forecaster is better than books. “There’s no comparison,’' she says. “Textbooks are boring. This is real, and you’re doing it yourself.’'

Another feature likely to be popular among schoolchildren is the soft- ware’s built-in communications program, which enables children in each of the schools to exchange information by modem.

“Ben Franklin was the first to understand the motion of storms,’' says Barstow. “What Ben understood, the kids can also learn. For example, if it rains in the morning in Philadelphia, the kids there can send a message up to a class in Boston and ask them to get in touch when the rain starts there.’'

Aside from what they’ll learn about thunderheads and ice crystals, Barstow adds, they’ll be exposed to the same technology used by professional meteorologists. And what they learn has broader applications: “We can break out into other areas of Earth science, like acid rain and global warming. We can have kids do local observations and try to determine trends.’'

Best of all, from a teacher’s perspective, weather forecasting is strictly pass-fail.

“If a kid says it’s going to rain, the next day he gets up and sees whether he was right or wrong,’' says Barstow. “Where else can you get such immediate feedback?’'

--Jeff Meade

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Something For A Rainy Day