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COMET Goes International

Having sharpened its skills in training U.S. forecasters for more than five years, the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training is expanding its territory. COMET is working with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on a series of courses that will teach forecasters worldwide using a variety of educational technologies, including interactive multimedia (computer-aided learning, or CAL) and video lectures.

The courses are a key part of COMET's thriving International Program, headed by Brian Heckman since its establishment last fall. The program was spun off from COMET's original Distance Learning Program, formed in 1989 by Brian and Dwight Owens. The DLP provides some staff support for the new program. Brian, Dwight, and other colleagues (including Roberta Gold and visitor Geoff Rudder) have met with the WMO and lined up several opportunities to show COMET's stuff and test its applicability outside the realm of U.S. forecasting.

In COMET's multimedia classroom, students can work with CD-ROM material on personal computers or watch a lecture from across the country. Addressing the wave analysis workshop from Camp Springs, Maryland, is Hendrik Tolman, a visitor in the ocean prediction group of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
"We're trying to help other national meteorological services modernize their education and training programs," says Brian, "but we don't want to do the work ourselves--we're really the support people. They'll be the ones doing it. Our role is to serve as a catalyst, to show examples of what we've done and provide tools to help them do it."

One route COMET is exploring is through the WMO's 22 regional training centers for meteorologists, most in developing countries. For example, the WMO center in Barbados, West Indies, offers courses to 22 English-speaking nations in the Caribbean and northern parts of South America. Brian and Dwight went to the Caribbean Meteorological Institute in Barbados last month to meet with faculty from that institute and the University of Costa Rica. In addition to providing those institutions with CAL capability, there is also the possibility that 16 Caribbean nations will be linked with state-of-the-art ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) videoconferencing technology.

The nice thing about building video interactivity from scratch, says Brian, is that the latest technology can be implemented immediately. "Countries that have no infrastructure may be better off, in some ways, than countries like the United States that have to deal with upgrading antiquated technology."

Once communications links are in place, an international training course could take place entirely in a distance-learning mode, presumably saving money for the WMO while providing training for many more meteorologists from poorer nations. "Most of the current WMO courses bring in about 20 students and two to four lecturers to a regional center. They spend all their funds on travel and they're left with nothing tangible to take home and work with," says Brian.

The first demonstration of COMET's high-tech tools for a WMO class took place in December at the Foothills Lab (see photos). Last year, COMET's Distance Learning Program was in the process of finishing its CAL module on ocean wave analysis and forecasting. Brian recruited Peter Dexter, director of the ocean affairs division at WMO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to come to Boulder and lead a week-long course on wave analysis for international meteorologists using the new module.

Steve Lyons, head of NOAA's Tropical Analysis Center, assists two of the students at COMET's wave analysis workshop: Miriam Andrioli, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Shyamala Balasubramanian, from Bombay India. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)
"We'd never done it that way, where students worked on CALs as part of the classroom instruction," Brian says. "At first, they fumbled around--figuring out how to use the mouse and so forth--but after that, they were engrossed." Each day, the students broke into pairs, worked one or two hours on the module, then watched as oceans expert Steve Lyons explained the material using portions of the module on a large screen in COMET's FL classroom. Students also participated in two lectures using Picturetel videoconferencing equipment. One was conducted from the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (Camp Springs, Maryland), and the other from the Tropical Prediction Center (Miami, Florida).

The class itself resembled a mini-United Nations. Most of them operational meteorologists, the students came from Russia, Argentina, France, Ireland, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Ethiopia, and several other countries.

"The students liked having the ability to sit and work on the modules at their own pace," says Brian of the post-class evaluations. Also given high marks was the structure of the modules, which included animations, live action, and interactive tests. Still, there will remain a place for traditional modes of teaching, says Brian. "In no way would we ever suggest getting rid of lectures entirely."

COMET is now working on proposals for a similar wave-analysis class at the Barbados center. Should all go well, Brian hopes the course can also be offered at WMO centers in Argentina and Brazil. "Ocean forecasting is extremely important for many parts of the world. Our objective with this course has been to open a window for the WMO on how they can conduct their education and training electronically. I think we've accomplished that." --BH

Noteworthy

The library of COMET's computer-aided learning (CAL) modules continues to grow. There are nine titles on laser disc, one on CD-ROM, and four other CD-ROMs now in the production or planning stages. Developed to train forecasters in the U.S. government and military, each module uses animation, video clips from experts, and student exercises to convey the latest knowledge on a single topic: thunderstorm initiation, ocean wave analysis, and the like. For the past few years, Weather Information Technologies, Inc., has been selling modules and supporting customers outside of COMET's sponsors, including universities, foreign weather services, and the private sector. Now the first multilingual module is in the works. As part of COMET's Caribbean-Latin American project, the International Program staff will soon begin converting selected modules to Spanish. COMET also is working with the German government on a similar project in Kenya and Niger. If all goes well, a module on satellite meteorology will be developed jointly with the WMO's regional training centers in Nairobi and Niamey. Four satellite meteorologists, two from each nation, will come to COMET for six to nine months to adapt the current satellite module for African audiences and weather. The final product will be in both French and English.


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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