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Students get up close and personal – with the weather

Tornadoes and thunder are real-world teaching tools in Sam Ng’s Observations of Severe Weather class.

September 14, 2016

Meghanne Shipe

Observations of Severe Weather, taught by Sam Ng, Ph.D., is cool for all the right reasons.

How’s this for a typical class session: Students pile into a van and hit the road for a week or longer to observe bad weather with their own eyes.Observations of Severe Weather class monitoring a storm

For credit!

The brainchild of Ng and his colleague, MSU Denver alumnus Scott Landolt, this remarkable course is a must for students with a major or minor in meteorology. There have even been a handful of exceptions made for interested students outside the discipline.

Ng launched the course in 2012, and since then has traveled with students to Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming to catch up with some of the states’ greatest storm systems.

Students must be prepared to spend up to 14 days on the road, though typical fieldwork generally runs about eight days, Ng said.

This is not “storm chasing,” according to Ng. In the parlance of the industry, this truly is “storm observation.” Students typically get no closer than a half-mile from a stationary storm, and safety is a priority.

“We always have an exit strategy,” he said, “because we want an out plan, at least one or two.”

But that’s close enough to provide some eye-popping instruction in severe weather. Each day, students use handheld weather meters to measure the wind, temperature, humidity and pressure. They track changes in the environment and also document the current weather with photos.

Toward the middle of the course, the students begin to evaluate the day's weather outlook and make forecasts. The class culminates with a final report based on their notes, observations and photographs.

Ng relishes the reactions he gets from the students every time out.

“It’s not just one memory; it’s every time I get to see the students’ faces, their first time observing something cool that they’ve never seen,” he said.

Observations of Severe Weather class monitoring a tornado