Safiya Dhunna knows firsthand just how much work goes into a weather forecast.
Finalizing a weather prediction and presenting that prediction on camera is part performance art and part gut instinct, said Dhunna, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Liberty Elementary School. It requires using a green screen and summoning eloquence and clarity on camera. Most importantly, forecasting the weather demands a literacy with the most complex brand of data, information that weaves together Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
Dhunna has gained an appreciation for every step of the process.
"I like science, and I already loved studying science," Dhunna said. "But I think the green screen component was the most exciting part of this project," she added with a smile, referencing the thrill of being in front of a camera.
Dhunna at her fellow eighth-graders from Liberty have built up expertise and perspective on the complexity of weather and meteorology, thanks to an interactive and demanding science project led by teachers Brian Seppala, Erika DeBell and Nadene Kline. For the final assessment in the students' weather unit, the teachers decided to have them put together a full weather forecast, drawing their conclusions from national weather data and using all the skills of a trained meteorologist.
"We're having them give a weather forecast. They're going to film them and show their work in class," said Seppala, adding that the project offered students practical applications not possible in a straightforward textbook unit. "This is a more real-world approach. They're working on scripts in English class, they're studying geography in putting together their maps. There are artistic components in putting together visual aids."
To kick off their multi-disciplinary work, students got input from a professional in the field. Mike Nelson, chief meteorologist for Channel 7, visited the school on Feb. 1 and offered an in-depth view of the trade. First, he gave a proper context to the trade, explaining, "Meteorologists are as close to a scientist as most people are going to get."
Nelson then outlined the path of his own career in television and meteorology over the past several decades and detailed the scientific progression of the trade. From physical weather maps drawn and assembled by hand to the advent of the first floppy-disk weather computers in the 1970s and 1980s, Nelson offered perspective about the evolution of predicting the weather.
He also stressed the importance of learning about the science and data behind the science affecting climate. Nelson addressed the precise causes and concrete proof behind the warming of the planet, offering an in-depth perspective on rising global temperatures and melting icecaps and glaciers. Nelson encouraged the students to delve into the science behind the phenomenon, and insisted that it takes courage to address the issue and think critically.
"Ladies and gentleman, we need you," Nelson said before encouraging the assembled crowd of middle-schoolers to pursue learning in earth science and other STEM-related fields to find solutions for the crises facing the planet. "We need your input in the future."
Nelson's presentation also included a few Vaudevillian antics – his well-known "Tornado Dance" spurred cheers and whoops from the crowd. The combination of hard science and unabashed performance helped bring the students' weather projects to life.
"His presentation offered awesome enrichment for the students," Seppala said. "Every student has been exposed to the introductory aspects of the science he was discussing. Having him here to talk and give examples was really valuable."
For Dhunna, the presentation offered a better a sense of the complicated combination of science, art and performance that underlies every weather forecast.
"It gave me a lot more information," she said. "It was fun. I got a sense of what is actually behind a forecast," she added, before returning again to the most exciting prospect tied to the project. "I'm really excited to use a green screen."