Forecasting Success: The Evolution of WKU’s Meteorology Program

When severe or “interesting” weather rolls into Bowling Green, you’ll likely find a group of students huddled in the College Heights Atmospheric Observatory for Students (CHAOS) lab.

It’s a fitting name for Western Kentucky University’s on-campus weather lab, especially given the nature of meteorology.

“Chaos theory is the number one issue in weather forecasting,” said Josh Durkee, Ph.D., director of White Squirrel Weather.

It’s here — in a space that was first an operational weather station, then a weather museum before being converted back to a state-of-the-art lab — that WKU meteorology students work to make sense of the chaos, producing forecast content that supports their classroom learning, guides research and prepares them for their careers.

The CHAOS lab plays an integral role in WKU’s meteorology program, but the program’s evolution is as fascinating a study as meteorology itself. In just over a decade, the meteorology program has grown to include 70-80 meteorology students in a given year, the CHAOS lab, a new mobile lab and a full weather forecasting and communication service — White Squirrel Weather.

Students in Western Kentucky University’s Field Methods in Weather Analysis in Forecasting, more commonly known as “WKU’s Storm Chase,” observe severe weather in the field.

And it all started with a storm.

The thrill of the chase

When Durkee arrived at WKU in the fall of 2008 to help build the newly created meteorology program with existing faculty Rezaul Mahmood, Ph.D., and Greg Goodrich, Ph.D., he drew inspiration from his childhood.

“When I was young, I would go storm-chasing,” he said. “I just loved being out in the field, taking pictures of storms.”

That experience — along with an idea cultivated by Durkee and his graduate school colleague, Grady Dixon, Ph.D., professor and Chair of Geosciences, Fort Hays State University — prompted Durkee to design a course on field methods in weather forecasting, which launched in 2010. Around campus, it’s more commonly known as “the WKU storm chase,” Durkee said.

WKU meteorology students represent White Squirrel Weather at the National Weather Association’s 2018 conference in St. Louis, Mo.

Each May, students in Field Methods in Weather Analysis in Forecasting travel with Durkee around the U.S. plains to forecast and observe severe storms. Students then document the accuracy of their forecasts and also have a chance to work as the day’s lead forecaster.

“We want the students to do all of the forecasting and make decisions under our guidance so that it’s safe and productive,” Durkee said. “I’ve always learned better with experiential, hands-on learning, and I want to offer more of that to students who could benefit from that type of learning.”

A sophisticated, multi-faceted program with one mission: student success

There’s no better place for meteorology students to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty than in Durkee’s field methods course. Yet he wanted to give students more opportunities for learning and real-world forecasting.

That’s when the CHAOS lab was created in the fall of 2014. A weather museum that had been in the space was moved to another room in the building so that Durkee and his students could repurpose the space with multiple computing systems and advanced hardware and software to do professional-grade weather analysis research and forecasting.

Still, Durkee found himself focused on the next step.

“I kept thinking it needs something else — the lab needs to produce something,” he said. “We have all of this applied and theoretical learning happening, but how can we put the theory into practice?”

Over dinner in the spring of 2016 with WKU Geography & Geology Instructor Jonathan Oglesby and a discussion aided by several napkin sketches, the concept of White Squirrel Weather emerged.

As part of White Squirrel Weather, the WKU meteorology program’s weather forecasting and communication service, a number of weather stations are installed throughout the WKU campus.

Not only would White Squirrel Weather provide forecasts and weather-related guidance to WKU, but thanks to Oglesby’s background in graphic design and using visual design to communicate challenging scientific topics, White Squirrel Weather content — including the website and a mobile app — would be eye-catching yet easy to read and understand.

“I thought this would be perfect for meteorology because communication is so important and such a challenge,” Durkee said.

A significant snowstorm, which occurred before Durkee and Oglesby’s dinner meeting, also revealed a need for accurate, real-time weather data.

“We had this big weather event come through and produce a foot of snow,” Durkee said. “At the time, the university was making weather-related decisions on their own. That was a tough storm to deal with because it shut the university down for awhile.”

Now, as part of White Squirrel Weather, several weather stations are set up around the WKU campus, including inside the football stadium, as well as on satellite campuses. As a result, White Squirrel Weather equips university officials with the information and hyper-local data they need to prepare for and react to significant weather.

“We’ve helped close the university for winter weather and helped mitigate the impacts of heavy rain such as flooded lots or building leaks,” Durkee said. “We’ve got wind and lightning alerts to help groups like the WKU band. And we have our own app so that everyone can have the true campus weather conditions in the palm of their hands whenever they want.”

To further expand White Squirrel Weather’s forecasting work and also enable educational opportunities, Durkee and his team recently welcomed an exciting addition: a mobile weather lab (think CHAOS lab on wheels!)

And in one of those incredible coincidences, storms popped up during the mobile lab’s grand opening event, which was held during WKU’s first home football game and an accompanying concert. The result: a chance to show what the lab can do.

During a recent WKU football game and concert, the newly unveiled White Squirrel Weather mobile lab monitored nearby storms and weather watches to help keep the crowd and performers safe.

“We were able to provide play-by-play intel for all of the folks involved with the football game and concert to let them know where we stood with regard to the storms,” Durkee said. “There was a tornado watch that stopped right at our county and a tornado north of the concert, but luckily the storms fizzled out before they got to us.”

The versatility of WKU’s meteorology program — including White Squirrel Weather — not only gives students an exciting range of opportunities to study, learn and understand weather. It also prepares them for a variety of careers. And that, to Durkee, is the ultimate goal.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way for our meteorology program to be employable for our students — that’s the bottom line,” he said. “Student success is our number one mission. We’ve done really well in placing students in several sectors: TV, emergency management, the National Weather Service and the private sector. And to me, that’s what student-centered means. If we give them opportunities to learn professional skills, then their success is what will ultimately drive the faculty and program’s success as a result.”


Why White Squirrel Weather?

If you’ve spent time on the Western Kentucky University campus, there’s a good chance you’ve seen White Squirrel Weather’s namesake. Why this particular animal?

“They’re the most popular, cute little things running around campus,” said Josh Durkee, Ph.D., director of the White Squirrel Weather meteorology program. “There’s not many of them, so when you see them, it’s a special moment.”

White Squirrel Weather’s mascot also has a deeper meaning.

“Our squirrel is female—we did that because most mascots are male and there’s a big push for women in science,” Durkee said. “I asked my daughter, who was in third grade at the time, what her name should be, and she said, ‘Why not call her Windy?’”

Not only is Windy a clever play on words; she also helps make weather more accessible to people of all ages.

“What we’ve found with this strategy has been pretty remarkable,” Durkee said. “Windy draws in people of all ages with the idea that we an attract and be part of all people. That way, when we do community outreach and education, we can go anywhere with White Squirrel Weather and everyone can get along.”