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Number 35, September 2002

Student Editorial

Reactions to the Changing Climate of K-12 Weather Education: Teacher Instruction

Like so many people in the field of meteorology, my interests in weather developed at a young age. By high school, I had read every weather book I could find and had learned much about basic atmospheric features. However, little to none of my pre-college education about the weather actually came from what I learned in the classroom. Perhaps I picked up a few meteorological facts and concepts scattered here and there, but never did my science teacher devote an entire unit (or course) to weather alone. In discussing this issue with my collegiate peers and elders, I have found that basic weather education had been scarce in their schooling as well.

Times are changing. More and more elementary, middle, and high schools are incorporating substantial weather units and, in some cases, even separate courses into the school curriculum content. This increase of weather content into school curricula is partially a result of the current emphasis placed upon standards-based education, in which school administrators and teachers mold school educational content around learning and understanding fundamental concepts, facts, systems, and procedures.

Education Standards

Standards-based education has become a priority for school districts all over the country. This precedence is due much in part to the increased role of standardized testing at all grade levels in an attempt to normalize learning on a broader scale. Educational standards are important factors that teachers consider when developing class curricula and lesson plans. The National Science Education Standards for grades K-12 are quite general compared with individual state and local standards, but do include standards relating directly to atmospheric properties and phenomena, climate, and natural hazards. Usually, state and local standards are more detailed. For example, earth science standard 3.5.7C of the Pennsylvania Department of Education Academic Standards for Science and Technology states that upon completion of the 7th grade all students should be able to do the following:

  • Explain weather forecasts by interpreting weather data and symbols
  • Explain the oceans' impact on local weather and the climate of a region
  • Identify how cloud types, wind directions and barometric pressure changes are associated with weather patterns in different regions of the country
  • Explain and illustrate the processes of cloud formation and precipitation
  • Describe and illustrate the major layers of the earth's atmosphere
  • Identify different air masses and global wind patterns and how they relate to the weather patterns in the different regions of the U.S.

Educators often hear that the goal of weather education is to teach young people how to become smart weather consumers. The word 'consumer' can be misleading to both teachers and students. Obviously, students will not be literally buying weather; however, they will be subject to the often unpredictable and destructive dynamics of the atmosphere. They need to know how to live with the effects of weather on nature, the economy, transportation, and society as a whole. This requires not only being able to distinguish between basic atmospheric features, but also appreciating the power of natural forces and understanding how humans change the natural environment. Naturally, weather education also involves informing young people about natural disaster safety and preparedness. The science education standards are also meant to encourage students to pursue careers in scientific and/or technological fields.

Unfortunately, the existence of these meteorological education standards does not guarantee that students are learning this material. Inadequate instructional materials, outdated classroom technology, and limited time within the school day and year are obstacles that science teachers must overcome. The educator's own lack of meteorological knowledge is perhaps the greatest barrier to the progression of meteorological education in the country's public school system. Presently, many of the nation's science teachers do not have the adequate educational background and basic meteorological knowledge necessary to effectively teach weather in the classroom. As the above example state standards indicate, much of this weather instruction is falling upon elementary and middle school teachers, most of whom have probably never taken a formal course in meteorology. While some educators are able to expand their meteorological knowledge through personal study on their own time, most teachers simply do not have the extra time or resources to do so.

Meteorological Training for K-12 Teachers

Fortunately, governmental agencies, universities, and private businesses have recognized this need to "teach the teachers" about meteorology. These institutions host and sponsor courses aimed at providing scientifically accurate information, hands-on demonstrations, and other resources that teachers may take back their schools and apply in the classroom. The latest trend in weather education for teachers is courses that require the participants to reside on-campus for a week or two for the duration of the course. Generally, these 1-3 credit 400 or 500 level courses are condensed, yet intensive, and take place during the summer months. The Penn State Department of Meteorology hosted its first annual "Weather Camp for Teachers" in late June of 2002 with support from the National Science Foundation, Penn State Outreach, the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Twenty-five elementary, middle, and high school level teachers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and the U.S. Department of Defense participated in the week-long program, which involved completing a set of pre-workshop assignments, attending lectures by university faculty, visiting local meteorological research, forecasting, and communication facilities, and developing meteorological lesson plans for use in their classrooms. Throughout the week, the eager participants also competed in a daily forecasting contest, debated over global warming, and each individual taped his/her own television weather broadcast. Surveys completed by the participating teachers indicate that this relatively small group of 25 science educators instructs at least 2,840 students each year. Imagine how many of the country's youth could be influenced if 500, 1,000, or more teachers had the opportunities to participate in weather education enrichment programs such as these.

The Forecast?

The development of meteorological teacher education resources is a promising advancement towards enhancing the knowledge of the next generation of students. Unfortunately, these resources are reaching only a small segment of the nation's educators and students. The need for meteorological teacher training is an incredible opportunity for atmospheric scientists to share our knowledge and enthusiasm about the atmosphere with the educational community.

Click here to find complete National Science Education Standards.

Emily Kowalski
Department of Meteorology
Penn State University

Editor's note: Ms. Kowalski received her bachelor's degree in meteorology from Valparaiso University, and is currently a master's student in the Penn State Department of Meteorology, where she is studying under Dr. Greg Jenkins.