Online training expands to include space weather, other topics
by Bob Henson
It's quite a leap from a thunderstorm gust front to the interplanetary magnetic field. For over a dozen years, meteorologists have learned many of the tools of their forecast trade through UCAR's Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training. Now COMET is taking its highly successful approach to online learning into new realms of atmospheric and related science.
Debuting this autumn is an experimental online module that explains the physics behind the aurora (see "On the Web"). The target audience is advanced undergraduates with physics and calculus under their belts. On the drawing board are modules on paleoclimate and watershed health.
COMET director Timothy Spangler began pondering the broader approach three years ago. While on a sabbatical in NCAR's Environmental and Societal Impacts Group," I had a chance to interact more regularly with other people from around the institution," Spangler says. He convinced NCAR director Tim Killeen that COMET's unique staff of scientists, instructional experts, and graphic artists could help convey a wider range of NCAR research.
In 2002 COMET and NCAR joined forces to solicit proposals for a demonstration project. The winner was NCAR's High Altitude Observatory, which suggested a solar-terrestrial module.
"As we went along, we realized the topic was too much for this demo project," says Thomas Holzer (HAO), the principal science advisor. The COMET/HAO team decided to pare the project by half and focus on the aurora. "We tried to find a topic that was engaging," says Spangler," and we thought the root causes of the aurora would be a good one."
Although COMET was already accustomed to employing extensive graphics and other learning tools, the aurora module pushed even more boundaries. An introductory section looks at the mystery and lore surrounding the aurora, with evocative text drafted by Holzer and polished by COMET instructional designer and project co-lead Dwight Owens.
Also, says Spangler," It's the first module we've ever done that uses music. That drove some of the scientists crazy, but it's not designed for them—it's designed for the person born after 1980."
The other co-lead, COMET geoscientist Dolores Kiessling (pictured below with Holzer), served as a liaison between HAO's space physicists and COMET's instructional experts. "My role was going over the scientific content, making sure that it made sense and it was at the level that we were shooting for," says Kiessling."I had a little bit of experience in the area but nothing like what we did in this module, so it was a huge learning experience for me."
Holzer was struck by Kiessling's intuition for the physical concepts being discussed and her persistence in making sure users would grasp the ideas. "She was relentless in forcing me to come up with understandable descriptions. I was constantly impressed by the questions she and Dwight were asking—questions that scientists in the field should be asking but rarely do."
COMET's bread and butter remains its training work for the nation's civilian and military weather services. However, Spangler says he is open to working with university scientists to fund and create other modules as time and resources allow. Already, some 3,500 user sessions per month on COMET's MetEd Web site are from .edu domains. A user survey in February indicates that about 20% of COMET's 15,000 online users per month hail from academia.
Holzer devoted the better part of six months to creating the aurora module. He considers it time well spent."I think it was the most enjoyable and rewarding experience I've had in my career. It was certainly right up there."
The aurora module will be available this fall on the sites listed below.
(Meteorology Education and Training)
NCAR High Altitude Observatory