Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Virtual Workshop 2014 > Course Descriptions > Our Dynamic Weather

Our Dynamic Weather

Dave Dempsey
San Francisco State University


"Our Dynamic Weather" explores the nature of weather and how and why it changes. It describes how atmospheric scientists display and interpret weather information and use that information to identify patterns, ask questions, and propose and test possible explanations as part of the process of building models of how the atmosphere works. The course uses the theme of forecasting to discuss how the process of science works in meteorology. Students participate in regular weather forecasting using an on-line exercise provided by Iowa State University.

Course URL: http://funnel.sfsu.edu/courses/metr104/F13
Course Type:
Entry Level:Meteorology

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

The course satisfies lower-division (freshman/sophomore) general education requirements for physical science and for laboratory science. (The learning objectives for these requirements are entirely about the process of science generally, where the subject matter is incidental except to illustrate how science works.) The course has no prerequisites and is not prerequisite to other courses. Almost none of the students are science, math, or engineering majors. Students majoring in meteorology and earth sciences take a different introductory survey course designed to provide a foundation for professional training.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses?
Yes. In meteorology, they overlap in some content areas but the intro course for majors requires quantitative problem solving (algebra-based), which we teach in a structured way, and tries to cover a greater breadth of the subject matter (so it's closer to a survey course than the course for non-majors), it goes deeper into many subjects, and it emphasizes the physical processes more.

If students take a non-majors course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course?
Yes. The intro course for non-majors doesn't provide the professional preparation that the intro course for majors does, so we don't consider them equivalent.

Course Content:

Topics addressed by the course (in both lecture and in indoor labs where students work with weather observations, computer models, or physical materials and instruments):
  • Reading graphs and maps of weather observations and forecasts.
  • Daily and seasonal variations in solar radiation and temperature, and connections between the two.
  • Other factors affecting temperature: clouds, the greenhouse effect, transport of heat by the wind (advection), pressure changes in rising and sinking air
  • Global patterns of temperature (including warm and cold fronts), pressure, winds, and cloudiness, and connections among them.
  • The greenhouse effect and climate change.
  • Conceptual, physical, statistical, and mathematical models of the atmosphere and their roles in helping us understand and predict atmospheric behavior.
  • Weather forecasting.
  • El Nino and La Nina events and their impact on rainfall on the West Coast of the U.S. (This topic is the subject of a partially collaborative research project that substitutes for a final exam.)

Course Goals:

The first two sets of learning objectives below are mandated by the University for lower division general education in physical science and laboratory science, respectively. The course makes a reasonable effort to address them.

After completion of a lower division course in a physical science, students will be able to:
  • gather and interpret scientific information from a variety of sources and use that information to discuss scientific issues;
  • describe ethical or sociological dilemmas arising out of scientific research and applications, which may include those related to social justice, and may have implications for local and/or global communities;
  • use scientific theories and methods of inquiry to explain phenomena observed in laboratory or field settings; and
  • discuss the relevance of major scientific theories and/or research to modern day life.
The University defines learning objectives for laboratory science as follows:

After completion of a lower division laboratory activity related to a course in physical science or life science, students will:
  • apply appropriate methods of analysis to raw data;
  • carry out common laboratory procedures correctly and adhere to instructions on laboratory safety; recognize hazardous situations and act appropriately;
  • maintain a timely, comprehensive laboratory notebook, including outside research, with sufficient detail to permit repeatability of experiments and to recognize how seemingly minor oversights can have serious consequences;
  • relate laboratory work to bigger questions in science and to recognize the applicability of scientific principles to situations outside of the laboratory;
  • explain the scientific method, including concepts of hypothesis and experimental controls, and why objectivity is essential; and
  • apply critical thinking in the laboratory and recognize whether results and conclusions make sense.
Because the way that the process of science works differs in some ways from one discipline to another, the course aims to help students meet the science process learning objectives above in the context of meteorology.

In addition to understanding more about how the process of science works, students should also be able to demonstrate an understanding of aspects of the broad concepts of atmospheric science listed below (selected from "Atmospheric Science Literacy: Principles and Fundamental Concepts of Atmospheric Science").
  • The earth has a thin atmosphere that sustains life.
  • Energy from the sun drives atmospheric processes.
  • Atmospheric circulations transport matter and energy.
  • The earth's atmosphere changes over time and space, giving rise to weather and climate.
  • The earth's atmosphere continuously interacts with the other components of the earth system.
  • We seek to understand the past, present, and future behavior of the earth's atmosphere through scientific observation and reasoning.
  • The earth's atmosphere and humans are inextricably linked.
What are the main features of the course that help students achieve these goals?
Lab explorations ask students to read and interpret visualizations of weather information (graphs, maps, images), including both observations and computer model simulations. Students identify patterns in what they see, pose possible explanations for the cause of those patterns, and test the explanations using other data. The daily temperature cycle serves as the subject of a number of these lab activities. The formation of a cloud in a bottle under some conditions but not others, serves as another. A semester-long online forecasting activity asks students to apply models developed from observations and interpret forecast information from the National Weather Service to predict the next day's weather. As a final project (in lieu of a final exam), students analyze 60+ years of winter rainfall and sea surface temperature data to look for statistical correlations between El Nino/La Nina events and rainfall patterns along the West Coast of the U.S., to test the hypothesis that the former affects the latter in some way.


Anonymous survey questions; regular "clicker" questions in class; four brief in-class quizzes (short answer and essay questions only); pre-class, online quizzes about reading assignments (with automated feedback to the students); weekly laboratory explorations (where students turn in written responses to questions posed by the lab); regular, online weather forecasting; a weather forecast briefing delivered to the class (and a follow-up analysis of it); and a final project summary report, which requires significant interpretation of results.


OurDynamicWeather_Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 85kB Feb11 14)

Teaching Materials:

Customized version (selected chapters) of "The Atmosphere: Introduction to Meteorology", 11th Edition, Lutgens & Tarbuck, 2010
It described phenomena and principles in language that was about the right level; the topics it emphasized more or less support what I want to accomplish; and it was customizable, thereby reducing the price by about a factor of two.

References and Notes:

Key Reading Resources:
Beyond the text, I write most of the stuff that I ask students to read, incorporated into lab assignments and "tactics" that I ask students to learn to forecast the weather.

Other Supporting Materials:
Final Project Assignment: Why Does West Coast Rainfall Vary from Year to Year? (Assignment instructions and most supporting files and handouts) - OurDynamicWeather_FinalProject (Acrobat (PDF) 4.1MB Feb11 14)

Instructions and supporting observations for a sequence of three lab explorations illustrating the construction and testing of a computer model of the daily temperature cycle. - OurDynamicWeather_LabExplorations_ComputerModelDailyTempCycle (Acrobat (PDF) 1MB Feb11 14)

Instructions for an in-class demonstration (wind chill; pressure and temperature) and subsequent hands-on lab exploration (moisture and clouds). - OurDynamicWeather_LabAndPrequelDemo_MoistureClouds (Acrobat (PDF) 145kB Feb11 14)

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