Reflections on The COMET Program's 25 Years of Innovative Education and Training and a Look at the Road Ahead

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Monday, 5 January 2015
Richard A. Jeffries, UCAR/COMET, Boulder, CO; and G. Byrd, W. Schreiber-Abshire, E. M. Page, B. Muller, and T. Alberta

The COMET Program, now known around the world, was formed in December, 1989 to serve as an education and training resource for weather forecasters during the National Weather Service (NWS) modernization. COMET is partially funded through a cooperative agreement between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a consortium of 103 universities offering degrees in the atmospheric and related sciences. Funding for the program now comes from many agencies, including NOAA's NWS and Satellite and Information Service (NESDIS) GOES and JPSS programs, the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, Australia Bureau of Meteorology, EUMESAT, the World Meteorological Organization and the Meteorological Service of Canada. More recent funding sources have been added in the last few years, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA's National Ocean Service, and the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration. COMET-created distance learning materials are freely accessible by users worldwide via our well-established MetEd website (www.meted.ucar.edu).

Originally, COMET had three primary programs: a residence classroom program, a distance learning program, and an outreach program that funded small applied research grants that paired forecasters with university researchers. The residence program consisted of courses ranging from mesoscale analysis and prediction to satellite meteorology to climate variability and change, and hydrometeorology, and at its peak in the late 1990's had as many as 35 weeks of class offerings per year! In the 2000's COMET was at the forefront of transitioning traditional residence course experiences to highly successful “virtual” courses taught live at a distance. Now, with 10 years experience offering virtual courses, COMET is well known for saving our sponsors' limited training funds by removing travel expenses for students for courses suited for the virtual environment, while continuing to offer interactive courses that include laboratory experiences.

In the early years, education and training targeted several thousand forecasters in the United States, a student population that could not be accommodated solely through residence instruction. COMET's cornerstone program was distance learning, which has experienced incredible growth since its inception. COMET distance learning engages large student populations in a consistent and cost-effective manner, utilizing innovative instructional design, sound science, state-of-the-art graphics and scenario-based learning. Initially COMET distance learning was published on laser discs (1991-97), transitioning to CD-ROM (1996-2000), and finally to Web-based training (1997-present). To date, COMET has produced over 750 hours of distance training in various topic areas, and continues to add about 50 hours of training per year, available to nearly 400,000 registered users on the MetEd website. Since the inception of the registration system in 2007, COMET has delivered over 1.5 million hours of online learning sessions. COMET's distance learning offerings have expanded to include self-directed lessons and courses, recorded lectures, facilitated courses and webinars and learning and media object resources. A wide variety of topics are treated, including aviation weather, climate variability and change, coastal, winter, and fire weather, hydrology, oceanography, tropical, mesoscale, radar and satellite meteorology, and numerical weather prediction. The registered MetEd user base goes well beyond public sector operational weather forecasters to include emergency managers, K-12 and university students and faculty, broadcast meteorologists, private sector consultants, and weather enthusiasts.

Currently, the COMET Program has a permanent staff of 24, consisting of scientists, instructional designers, graphic artists and multimedia developers, who team to produce award-winning education and training. Recognition includes the Brandon-Hall Gold Medal for Excellence in Learning (2004), the American Geophysical Union Excellence in Geophysical Education Award (2006), the National Weather Association Public Education Award (2009) and the American Meteorological Society Louis J. Battan Award (2004).

As COMET enters its second quarter century, we will continue to build toward the future by expanding our distance learning offerings while exploiting new advances in educational technology. To maintain relevancy, it is anticipated that COMET will evolve from a primary focus on production of distance learning modules and courses to providing support services needed to qualify, certify and assure competency-based education and training outcomes. These, include reusable/searchable learning elements, accredited content, competency assessment tools, simulations, faculty/facilitator support tools, instructional design support, graphics and media services. The cornerstone will be a “UCAR Center for Geoscience Workforce Competency” targeted at geoscience workforce development.