Curriculum - Hot topic

6th November 2009 at 00:00
The outlook for meteorology and forecasting in schools is good, with clouds of misconception lifting as more children develop an appreciation of the subject. Diana Hinds reports

The summer of 2009 will stay in the minds of many as the summer when the forecasters at the Met Office got it wrong. They promised us, or so we thought, a "barbecue summer", and what we got during July and August were weeks of rain. Although most pupils may not bother watching weather forecasts, they, like their parents, will have felt disappointment and frustration as more and more outdoor activities were rained off.

But how much do your pupils really know about the weather? Is there scope in the secondary curriculum for young geographers to get right inside the subject of meteorology and forecasting, and might this make a difference to the way they react to what the Met Office tells us?

The summer of 2009 in itself makes prime case-study material, taking in aspects of both physical geography (how was the long-term forecast made and why was it "wrong"?) and human geography, looking at the impact it had on, for example, supermarket buyers ordering barbecues and people booking holidays and trips abroad.

What the Met Office actually told us in April was that we were "odds on for a barbecue summer". Following the two wet summers of 2007 and 2008, the media leapt delightedly on this phrase and propelled it into the headlines. But in the general weather euphoria, what we lost sight of was the element of probability.

The Met Office actually predicted that it was "more likely" (a 66 per cent chance) that we would have warmer than average temperatures and rainfall near or below average for the three summer months. What we actually got was slightly warmer than average temperatures but combined with higher than average rainfall (twice as much as normal in July), which meant many barbecues were locked in the shed.

"The Met Office's phrase 'barbecue summer' was probably misguided in hindsight," says Rachel Fordham, head of education at the Royal Meteorological Society, "even though their forecast did turn out to be right in some aspects."

Dave Britton, chief press officer at the Met Office and a former forecaster, is more defensive. "We did take quite a heavy battering in July," he says. "But we used that phrase because we wanted to humanise the story. We need to try harder to make sure we are communicating the probabilistic nature of the forecast."

The long-term winter forecast is easier for the Met Office to predict, he says (because of the statistical methods used), and more significant, in terms of its impact on energy prices, emergency planning and salt for icy roads. "Our provisional outlook for the winter months is temperatures near or above average and rainfall near or above average, but we are not putting a figure on it yet."

Seasonal forecasts are put together differently from the standard five-day forecasts. Meteorologists build different models that join together what is happening in the atmosphere with what is happening in the oceans (which transport much of the energy that drives our weather on longer timescales). They also consider other factors such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (the relationship between sea-surface temperature and pressure around Iceland and at the Azores in May, a good indicator of winter weather conditions) and El Nino (the large-scale warming of sea-surface temperature in the tropical Pacific).

Using powerful computers, they bring together ocean atmosphere predictions and statistical relationships and then run the model many times, with slightly different starting conditions. The end result is a long-term forecast that is "probabilistic" and broad in detail. A five-day or 24-hour forecast, by contrast, is more "deterministic", with a higher level of accuracy: if the Met Office says it will rain tomorrow, generally it rains at some point, although there is still an element of probability.

"Long-term forecasting is very much a developing science," says Ms Fordham. "The uncertainty is quite hard to convey to a mass audience." Mark Gibbs, a government business manager at the Met Office, goes further: "There is a lack of understanding of probability by the general public. When people perceive we have got the forecast wrong, it's normally because we have had to give them a single outcome rather than a range of options. The lack of understanding constrains us in terms of the information we can pass across to people."

Another good case study is the famous case of the great storm of 1987, which the Met Office entirely neglected to predict. Ms Fordham explains that this was due to "poor model resolution", which failed to pick up the detail of the storm; the higher resolution of today's models would certainly have captured it. But there are successes: the Met Office's hurricane forecasts have been "spot on" for the past four years, she says, and forecasters gave an accurate five-day warning of the heavy snow in the South of England in February this year.

Both the Met Office and the Royal Meteorological Society are keen to help schools build their pupils' knowledge of meteorology and forecasting, and to encourage them to accept that there is a broad sphere of probability when it comes to weather. Weather features briefly in the key stage 3 geography curriculum and in some geography GCSE courses, and meteorology is touched on in A-level geography. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence's social studies section includes a module on recognising differing weathers and how the seasons influence how we feel.

"There are links where it could be explored more, and we are redeveloping our website to make the curriculum links more explicit, such as the water cycle and the seasons," says Ms Fordham.

The Met Office also has many resources on its website for teaching weather and forecasting, arranges video-conferences with Met Office specialists for A-level students and invites school parties to visit its headquarters in Exeter.

It is also working with local secondary schools to develop new resources focusing on the maths and science involved in meteorology. "Forecasts are produced by running large computer models that represent the atmosphere using the basic equations of motion," says Mark Gibbs. "This tends to get lost sight of in schools and they look more at the impact of the weather."

Recruiting good scientific staff to work in meteorology is increasingly difficult, he says. "Ideally, we would like meteorology to be taught with maths and science rather than geography. This would give children an early appreciation of the subject and perhaps encourage them to stick with maths and science."

Alan Parkinson, secondary curriculum co-ordinator of the Geographical Association and a head of geography until 2009, would like to see the key stage 3 topic of "why weather changes from place to place" taught in a more creative way and not just from the textbook. Schools, he says, could look at why the forecast is used, who uses it, what elements make up a forecast and where the potential for error lies. They could also draw on pupils' own experiences - for example, making their own weather diaries and forecasts and comparing them with official forecasts.

Lucy Verasamy was first taught meteorology by Mr Parkinson at A-level, pursued the subject in a geography and earth sciences degree at Brunel University and is now a weather forecaster and presenter at Sky News (which provides only short-term forecasts). "I always had an interest in the weather and I loved geography at school because it was so varied," she says. "As a forecaster, the unpredictability is quite a challenge: no day is the same and it keeps you on your toes. I do feel that people remember when we get it wrong rather when we get it right, but actually we get a lot right."

Noel Jenkins, geography AST at Court Fields Community School in Wellington, Somerset, "hated meteorology at school and at university". But he says the forecasting resources now available on the internet (for example, the BBC's weather site) have transformed the subject and he now thoroughly enjoys teaching it. "I always teach Year 8 about synoptic charts and how to interpret them. When they realise that a bunch of lines can translate into a three-day weather prediction, they become excited about creating their own forecasts and seeing how accurate they can be."

With the help of an interactive weather chart devised by Mr Jenkins - where they can drag down weather symbols - and pocket video cameras, pupils present and record their own three-day forecast and check three days later to see if they were right. "The great thing about this activity is that it works," he says. "Regardless of ability, the children get it correct."

Once his pupils have a basic grounding in reading weather charts, Mr Jenkins moves on to some "wild weather", such as Hurricane Katrina, which is always popular. Pupils track hurricanes on the internet and go on to consider the human-geography aspects - the way Hurricane Katrina's impact was managed and the following political fallout.

Geography teachers are increasingly sharing resources with one another via the internet. A popular KS3 resource for weather and forecasting is Tony Cassidy's "Pat Does Depressions". This is a short video, with a lively soundtrack plus back-up materials, in which the children's favourite Postman Pat witnesses a warm front, followed by a cold front, moving around a central area of low pressure in an anti-clockwise direction. The resource is slightly frowned on by some purists, but Tony Cassidy, a geography teacher at Kirk Hallam Community Technology and Sports College, Ilkeston, says it has helped to make a difficult topic accessible to pupils of all abilities. He also gets pupils to act out the stages of a depression, using their arms as the cold and warm fronts, so they learn kinaesthetically.

With this knowledge under their belts, Mr Cassidy's Year 8 pupils put together their own forecasts and broadcast them to a wider audience via the internet. "It's something they enjoy because it's creative," he says. "As well as geography, other skills come through, like teamwork, presentation, interpretation of symbols."

It also opens their eyes, Mr Cassidy says, to the fact that the people they see presenting weather on television are highly skilled in meteorology, even if they do not always get the forecast "right". That is something they can explain to their parents next time we are told to expect a barbecue summer.


- Weather Studio: interactive web pages for pupils to present a realistic weather forecast

- 'Pat Does Depressions': video, PowerPoint presentations and worksheet on the formation of depressions

- Using Twitter in a lesson on weather: http:olliebray.typepad.comolliebraycom200902using-twitter-and-google-earth-to-make-the-most-of-the-weather.html

- Met Office weather resources

- Royal Meteorological Society weather resources www.rmets.orgactivitiesschoolsindex.php

- BBC weather resources

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