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Volume 32, Issue 3

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Wednesday, 03 April 2019 19:39

Professional Weather Graphics Tool Helps University Make Meteorology and Weather Analysis Classes Come Alive

ERAU students generate forecasts with eye-catching daily graphics

Embry-Riddle Aeronautic University (ERAU) decided to amp up its broadcast meteorology classes with professional weather graphics and precision storm tracking tools that can be used to illustrate complex weather conditions and explain weather concepts to students. The customizable graphics platform enables the university to incorporate a range of other available weather data and create graphics that work well in the classroom environment. Providing daily weather graphics every day, including holidays, helps the university tell the most important national and regional weather story of the day. Expanding the tools student forecasters have on hand, the weather platform provides exceptional analysis and learning opportunities.

First used for broadcast meteorology classes, the new graphic system is now being used for weather analysis and forecasting, aviation weather, and tropical meteorology classes. ERAU continues to expand its use to create more content for the website and as a teaching tool for student pilots and a variety of other situations. And students are sitting up and taking notice. Enrollment in broadcast meteorology classes has more than doubled since they began using the new tools.

Explanations work better with good graphics

Robert Eicher, Assistant Professor of Meteorology, was searching around for a high quality instructional weather analysis and graphics system for his broadcast meteorology class. Before coming to ERAU, Eicher had worked as a television weather broadcaster for two decades. He knew the power of good graphics in explaining weather to audiences and was looking to extend that to his students.

“Lectures are usually accompanied by PowerPoint presentations with a lot of words,” Eicher explains. “As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words – it is easier to explain what’s going on if you have a good graphic. And animated graphics go a lot farther for illustrating what we are teaching about weather.”

Professor Eicher began shopping around for a weather analysis system that would fit into an instructional environment. After looking at available options, he eventually opted for Baron Lynx™, which combines weather graphics, weather analysis and storm tracking into a single platform. He had familiarity with Baron weather products, having used them at television stations in Orlando, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Lynx platform includes several components. One area is dedicated to weather analysis, where students analyze the weather data cross the continental United States. Another area enables students to assemble and prepare the weather show and deliver it during a weather cast. The third is a creative component dedicated to weather graphics, and allows students to generate new weather graphics using existing graphical elements or by creating entirely new artwork.

Lynx was developed with the direct input of more than 70 broadcast professionals, including meteorologists and news directors. When introduced in 2016, Lynx garnered rave reviews for telling captivating weather stories and dominating station-defining moments. TV stations liked that Lynx offered them a scalable architecture that they could configure specifically to their own needs. With that came an arsenal of tools, including wall interaction, instant social media posting, forecast editing, daily graphics, and of course storm analysis. Integration across all platforms – on-air, online, and mobile – was another big plus for weather news professionals.

For Professor Eicher, the two deciding factors in favor of selecting Lynx were value for the money and customizability. “Compared to other options I looked at, you get a lot more for your money – a bigger bang for the buck. I also liked the customizability, which works well for our unique situation. As a university, we are already getting a ton of data from an existing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data port. I like that Lynx allows us to incorporate the data we are getting and make good graphics with it. We can get in and tinker around and do some innovative things for the classroom environment.”

One unique example involved teaching aviation school students about the potential for icing. Eicher went into Lynx and adjusted contours at an atmospheric air pressure of 700 millibars (at 10,000 feet) to show only the 32 degree line, so the students could see where the freezing level was at 10,000 feet. He then adjusted the contours of relative humidity that were 75 percent and above. The result illustrated where the temperature and humidity combined to produce ice, showing the icing potential at that flying level. “It is a unique graphic that I don’t think anyone else has,” noted Eicher.

Baron4 3 1The program is being used for weather analysis and forecast and also enables broadcast meteorology students to publish their forecasts and make them visible to people outside the classroom. “In the past, students would have written their forecasts and only their professor would see it,” said Professor Eicher. “Now the class has a clear purpose. Student meteorologists use Lynx to prepare weather analyses and forecasts and publish the results to the ERAU website using the Baron Digital Content Manager (DCM) portal.” 

While not a part of Lynx, the DCM is a web portal that communicates with Lynx. Using the DCM, meteorologists can update forecasts remotely and publish them across mobile platforms and websites. It is accessible to anyone who has credentials: students can log in from their home, lab, or class and enter the data. The DCM forecast builder feature allows users to populate their forecast, select weather graphics associated with specific forecast conditions using a spreadsheet-like form for the data entry, and publish them to the ERAU website. The forecast graphics and the resulting format are predefined during system setup.

On weekends, holiday breaks, or summer vacation, the DCM can be set to revert to the National Weather Service (NWS) forecast, solving the problem of what to do if students are not there to issue a forecast. Eicher considers this a feature that would be extremely useful for any university, because it means a current forecast will always appear on the website. According to Professor Eicher, “The ability to update the forecast via our web portal provided a solution for a need that had been unmet for five years or more.”

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Teaching Assistant Michelle Hughes uses Lynx to prepare weather analyses and forecasts and publish to the ERAU website.

In general, Eicher has found a lack of good real time weather instructional material, so he has turned to the Lynx program to develop better teaching tools. In addition to the original broadcast meteorology course, he and other instructors are also using the program for aviation weather and tropical meteorology classes. He anticipates it will soon be used to develop instructional graphics for an introduction to meteorology course. For example, Lynx will allow instructors to move beyond just a still image of information on upper level winds that show current wind patterns and then animate the winds with moving arrows. This type of animation clearly illustrates conditions and highlights areas where attention should be focused.

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ERAU is also using the program to develop other high quality instructional materials, including animated graphics that can be used to explain important regional and national weather events, for example, the recent California wildfires.

Positive feedback for new teaching tool

ERAU faculty and administration are extremely pleased with the availability of the new teaching tool for broadcast and meteorology students, and student pilots. Located in a broadcast studio that is part of the meteorology computer lab, Baron Lynx is accessible to the entire meteorology faculty and students, with output connected to adjacent classrooms. Enrollment in broadcast meteorology classes has more than doubled since ERAU obtained these new tools.

Support and training on the product have been provided at a high level. The Baron technical support staff is used to supporting televisions stations 24/7/365, so were not thrown off by students calling them on a Saturday afternoon with questions on how to produce graphics for their forecasts. The students showed off their new knowledge on a live Facebook stream the day before Thanksgiving on travel weather.

Eicher also gave high grades to the staff training provided. “The staff person brought in to train me on use of the program actually assisted with teaching the broadcast meteorology class, showing the students how to use the program directly.”

Customizable graphics product ideal for classroom environment

The customizable Lynx product enables the university to incorporate a range of other available weather data and create graphics ideal for the classroom environment.

The university is also looking into developing a range of other graphics for use on their new website, as well as creating more content using Lynx for educational purposes. Also in the planning stages is consideration of hooking in other camera sources like a roof/sky camera into the Lynx program, combined with weather data. “Word is getting out that we have a pretty unique opportunity,” concludes Professor Eicher.