1270 If You Had Nine Contact Hours a Week for a Capstone Course, What Would You Teach? The Synoptic Meteorology Capstone Sequence at the University of South Alabama

Wednesday, 15 January 2020
Hall B (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
John M. Lanicci, Univ. of South Alabama, Mobile, AL; and D. A. Murray and K. G. Blackwell

Handout (518.4 kB)

The Synoptic Meteorology I and II courses (MET 454/455) represent a 12-credit capstone sequence for meteorology majors at the University of South Alabama. Both courses are taught in a lecture/lab format that totals 2½ hours a week for lecture and 6¼ hours a week for lab. By the time the second course is complete, students and faculty have been together for approximately 263 contact hours spanning two semesters! This amount of time affords both faculty and students a tremendous opportunity to cover a wide breadth of topics and blend the theoretical with the practical by means of lab exercises and real-time practicums.

The origins of the course approach were described by Blackwell (2011) as a way to merge “quantitative theoretical aspects of earlier calculus, physics and dynamic meteorology... with more qualitative real-time weather analysis and forecasting.” The goal was to address “shortfalls between undergraduate meteorology student instruction and subsequent expectations in the operational forecasting workplace.”

The present version of the capstone sequence has two distinct, but related emphases. In the fall semester, quasi-geostrophic theory is applied in lab exercises, a semester-long real-time forecasting practicum and up to four real-time student-led current weather discussions. The forecasting practicums and weather discussions are conducted without the extensive use of numerical weather prediction products. Students must diagnose the current state of the atmosphere using either terminology from the QG Height Tendency Equation or a simplified version of the QG Omega Equation after Chapter 4 in Carlson’s (1998) textbook. Continuity and extrapolation through a 24-hour period are emphasized, and students’ utilizations of these concepts in both their daily forecasts and current weather discussions reinforce concepts taught in the lecture and Dynamics sequence that was taken in junior year. In the spring semester, numerical weather prediction is introduced and the course takes on a more practicum-based flavor, although concepts such as the Ageostrophic Wind Equation, Isentropic Analysis, and Frontogenesis are introduced and expected to be applied by students in their daily forecasts (which are now more complicated with numerous additional variables) and current weather discussions, both of which now extend to 60 hours.

Student feedback through the years has been very positive both in course evaluations and in after-the-fact alumni testimonials. There are numerous examples of graduates who were hired by private sector firms and the National Weather Service as a direct result of their understanding of how the atmosphere works and the ability to apply that knowledge in a real-time operational environment. However, the nature of weather analysis and forecasting is changing, and emphasis is moving to interpretation of ensemble forecasts, ensemble-based products such as the National Blend of Models, and short-term interpretation of convection allowing models. Additionally, both public and private sectors are emphasizing impacts-based decision assistance while still requiring graduates to display a working knowledge of atmospheric processes. The challenges associated with adapting to the changing requirements of the workplace without sacrificing the application of theory to operations will be discussed, and approaches to addressing these will be presented.


Blackwell, K. G., 2011: The synoptic meteorology capstone course sequence in the USA meteorology major: A unique and highly successful approach to producing well-rounded and operationally competent meteorologists. First Annual South Alabama Conference on Teaching and Learning, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL, 16 May 2011.

Carlson, T. N., 1998: Mid-Latitude Weather Systems. American Meteorological Society Books, 507 pp.

Supplementary URL: https://www.southalabama.edu/meteorologyclub/synoptic/

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