In the Midwest, many people say that if someone doesn’t like the weather, stick around a minute, it will change. But meteorology students at Valparaiso University are not the type to simply wait around.
Quarter-century in the making
In 1991, Valpo developed a meteorology major, ushering in the newly dubbed Department of Geography and Meteorology. Two years later, a post-doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, Bart Wolf, Ph.D., professor of meteorology, was about to start his meteorology career in the heart of tornado alley, Oklahoma. But he took a slight detour, and instead became Valpo’s first meteorologist.
“I knew I always wanted to teach,” Professor Wolf says. “Valpo is unique in that it really prides itself on excellent teaching. While other institutions may focus more on research, Valpo is motivated by teaching excellence.”
It is that teaching excellence that has enabled the program to grow from a handful of students 25 years ago to roughly 100 students, five faculty, and a full-time staff meteorologist today.
As Professor Wolf explains, there is a valuable three-pronged approach to the department’s success — regular access to full-time faculty; all classes taught exclusively by faculty members; and in-field experience.
“What sets us apart is that undergrads can take meteorology classes all four years,” Professor Wolf says. “That keeps them interested and offers great opportunities to take a wide variety of specialty courses. It’s a major reason we have a significantly higher graduation rate and post-grad placement.
One of those undergrads is Aaron Mehner ’18, who was always interested in science and the weather. Growing up in southeast Missouri, he saw his fair share of severe storms.
He was all set to attend a larger Midwestern university when he visited Valpo. The smaller class sizes and faculty involvement, coupled with the faith-based aspect to learning, told Aaron he had found the place he would spend at least the next four years.
No substitute for experience
Another key element that sets the Valpo meteorology major apart is the opportunities students have outside the classroom.
Each spring Professor Wolf holds a for-credit class in severe storms and leads students on actual field experiences tracking storms from the ground and air.
“The growth of experiential learning in many ways reflects growth of the program overall,” Professor Wolf says. “There are a variety of experiential learning opportunities in the program that have blossomed.”
With more students also comes the diversity of ideas and the need for additional experiences. That means developing opportunities to serve students interested in climate change, space weather, and more.
The major even enables meteorologists to have a digital media minor to prepare students for a career in television weather forecasting.
Student-led experiences double the value
Aaron is set to graduate from Valpo with his meteorology degree in May, but not before he spends the academic year as director of the student-run storm intercept team. The team, composed of majors and non-majors who have taken at least Meteorology 103 and a storm spotter class, are an on-call squad of severe storm savants. The group will gather at a moment’s notice to find and study severe storms forming in the Midwest.
“The in-field experience is student led and 100 percent educational,” Aaron says. “The locations we go to and the experiences we have are guided by students. The students have weather conversations before the trip and will debrief afterward.”
The storm intercept team is not the only student-run event in the department. The 16th Annual Great Lakes Meteorology Conference, sponsored by the Northwest Indiana Chapter of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association, will be held at Valpo in March. For the past 15 years, Valpo students have booked the speakers, reserved the conference space, and even taken care of the catering for the day-long conference for about 100 regional and national meteorologists, faculty, and fellow students.
Total eclipse of the heart
Experiential learning hit new levels this summer. A few students from the storm intercept group, in addition to faculty members and other meteorology majors, spent time Aug. 21 looking at the nation’s first total solar eclipse in several generations from a different angle than most.
The team sent aloft weather balloons to study how the atmosphere changes before, during, and after an eclipse.
Studying the eclipse is just one example of the growth of the department, Professor Wolf says.
“There is a greater emphasis on quantifying uncertainty (with meteorology) today and communicating to the general public in a more meaningful way to serve them better,” he says. “The discipline has changed as well. It has become much more interdisciplinary. We are now working with social scientists, oceanographers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and more. There is an emphasis on professionalism across the board. Broadcast meteorology has evolved to become a much more scientifically rigorous enterprise as well.”
Just as the discipline has changed and technological advances have enhanced the science of meteorology, the University will continue to evolve just as it has done the past 25 years.
“There has been a very serendipitous series of events that have lead us to where we are today,” Professor Wolf says. “We see what we do as a calling as much as we see it as a job.”