Teaching meteorology at the University of Texas, El Paso

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Sunday, 29 January 2006
Teaching meteorology at the University of Texas, El Paso
Exhibit Hall A2 (Georgia World Congress Center)
Thomas E. Gill, Univ. of Texas, El Paso, TX

Poster PDF (189.2 kB)

The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is a Minority Institution, with over 80% nonwhite enrollment: it is the only major research university in the USA whose students are primarily Mexican-American. UTEP's enrollment also is comprised of approximately 10% Mexican citizens, giving it one of the largest Mexican National student populations of any USA university. UTEP is widely regarded as a model institution for involving Hispanic students in research and one of the leading universities in the nation in the provision of college degrees in science and technology to Hispanic students.

El Paso, Texas is a great place to teach the scientific aspects of weather. Atmospheric-related topics such as air quality (the metropolitan area experiences noticeable air pollution) and water supply (a growing city in an arid climate) are key issues of ongoing concern to El Paso residents and have demonstrable economic and environmental impacts on the local community. Its geographical setting- an isolated large urban area in a desert surrounded by complex topography, often at the meeting point of air masses- results in many sensible meteorological phenomena of interest to students. The Franklin Mountains, bisecting the city of El Paso, rise high enough into the atmosphere to cause orographic uplift, anabatic-katabatic breezes, and strong downslope winds. Drainage-related flows are experienced in the Rio Grande rift and valley which forms the border between Texas and New Mexico (to the west) and Chihuahua, Mexico (to the south). Temperature differences between the built-up city and the sparsely populated Chihuahuan Desert surroundings illustrate the urban heat island effect. The region experiences the annual late-summer southwest monsoon, spring drylines, and significant dry-season and thunderstorm-outflow dust storms. While “winter weather,” tornadoes, and large hail are infrequent in El Paso, heat, flash floods, high winds and lightning are important local meteorological hazards.

UTEP is moving towards increasing course offerings and enhancing student learning in the atmospheric and related sciences, primarily through its environmental science curricula. Participation in the American Meteorological Society (AMS)'s Diversity Project and an educational grant from NOAA have allowed UTEP to strengthen its environmental science offerings by adding and deepening meteorological- related courses, outreach programs, and research and career opportunities for students. Although available to any UTEP student, these programs are of particular interest to students in the BS/MS programs in Environmental Science and the doctoral program in Environmental Science and Engineering, as well as students majoring in Geology, Biology, and other sciences.

In Spring 2005, the author developed and introduced a unique graduate-level “Atmospheric and Meteorological processes” class, providing a rigorous and comprehensive introduction to atmospheric science and research to advanced students in the geological and environmental sciences who lacked previous weather-related training or coursework. In Fall 2005, the author utilized the AMS's “Online Weather Studies” (OWS) curriculum to retool and reformulate UTEP's Geography 3306, “Weather and Climate” class. This is a traditional, 3-hour classroom-lecture based course: the Internet-based content delivery and discussions of current weather provided by OWS are used to illustrate key meteorological concepts and for interactive lessons and assignments in the course. Whenever appropriate, “the view out the window” is used to illustrate meteorological concepts via the weather occurring at class time. The OWS curriculum is an excellent way to connect UTEP and its students with local NOAA resources: guest lectures from National Weather Service forecasters, other professional meteorologists, and a field trip to the National Weather Service Forecast Office- El Paso (NWSFO ELP) are used to illustrate practical applications of and potential internship and career opportunities in atmospheric science, while products from the NWSFO ELP web site are integrated into course assignments and lectures.