Newswise — The University of Washington has long boasted one of the country's top programs in atmospheric sciences. Now, the UW is also teaching undergraduates how to share that knowledge online and on TV as a broadcast meteorologist. 

The Media & Meteorology class, launched in winter quarter, is open to students from across the university who are taking or have passed a prerequisite introductory courses in atmospheric sciences. 

"We've been talking about this idea for a few years now, and it's exciting to launch this course," said primary instructor Shannon O'Donnell, the lead forecaster at KOMO-TV.   

O'Donnell graduated from the UW with a degree in atmospheric sciences. 

In the new class, students will learn to communicate weather information in a number of ways, including the use of a “green screen” — a bright-green screen that forecasters stand in front of while talking and gesturing, with maps and graphics added digitally. 

"It's surprisingly hard to work in front of the weather wall," O'Donnell said. "It's kind of like a funhouse mirror where things feel awkward and backward. You see the green behind you, and then you have TV monitors to the side. You have to look at the monitor to see the graphics." 

While some stations have gone to large digital screens, many newsrooms prefer the green screen because it offers better-resolution graphics. 

"The reason why we still go to all that trouble is it still looks so much more crisp on TV," O'Donnell said. 

The course also covers the history of broadcast journalism and provides practice presenting on TV, radio and online. Follow the students' forecasts on Twitter at @TheUWDawgcast

"Communication of weather information is important for societal decision-making," said co-instructor Cliff Mass, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences. "The range of communication options for weather information — television, online and social media, smartphones and more — has greatly changed over the past two decades, and students must learn to master their various tools."

Mass has a popular weather blog that got 450,000 hits during the recent January snowstorm, and a weekly radio segment on KNKX. His book, "The Weather of the Pacific Northwest," is on the class reading list.

The three-credit course will include hands-on experience and discussion of tools such as weather blogs, Twitter and weather-related Facebook groups. Students will also visit KOMO-TV's newsroom and Seattle's National Weather Service office. 

"Broadcast has become so much more than just television," O'Donnell said. "Social media has become a huge way to broadcast weather information, and it's more popular than ever. Today the National Weather Service is also communicating directly with the public, and those accounts often have very large followings." 

For many years KOMO has offered an internship in which students, most from the UW, learned the ropes at the weather desk. O'Donnell and Scott Sistek, a web meteorologist at KOMO and UW graduate, mentor the students presenting forecasts and writing blog posts. The new course will provide an instructional foundation for those students and others who are interested in exploring the field of weather broadcasting and communication.

 "I think weather is something that's stayed interesting to people because it's so impactful in people's lives," O'Donnell said.

The UW class joins existing broadcast meteorology instruction at schools including Pennsylvania State University and Mississippi State University. The instructors hope to also launch a summer offering that would be accessible to journalism students at Washington State University and other schools.

 

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For more information, contact O'Donnell at sodonnell@atmos.washington.edu and Mass at cmass@uw.edu.

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