Tammy Parece of Blacksburg, Va., a doctoral candidate in geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, says she wanted to find the best locations within the city of Roanoke, Va., for growing gardens. That idea, which became part of her dissertation study, led her to spearhead an effort to install weather stations throughout Roanoke City schools.

The weather stations, which are mounted on top of the school buildings, are helping Parece conduct her research using geospatial technology to optimize urban agriculture. Meanwhile, a generation of Roanoke’s school children is growing up learning about forecasting weather.

A research epiphany

Parece evaluates environmental and social aspects of the city to figure out the best places to plant community gardens, which help provide affordable and nutritious meals to those who need them.

“I’m interested in the health and welfare of the urban population,” Parece said. “Food security, meaning how available food is in neighborhoods, plays a big role in the health of cities.”

A believer in the service learning model of education, Parece looks for opportunities to incorporate community service into her studies. She knew she needed to collect weather data throughout Roanoke City to find patterns of precipitation and temperature.

“We may hear that Roanoke is 34 degrees today, but that’s really just for the airport,” said Parece. “That’s not necessarily the temperature on Mill Mountain or at Wal-Mart.”

It dawned on Parece and her dissertation committee that the best place for the weather stations would be in the public schools, which are dispersed throughout the city.

“They’re in neighborhoods,” she said. “They’re where the population is.”

Placing weather stations at the schools would have the added benefit of strengthening the local curriculum in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Funding for the project came from a variety of sources. Andrew Ellis, an associate professor in the college’s geography department, contributed research funds to purchase two stations, which are technically the property of Virginia Tech.

Parece used grant money from the Sidman Poole Endowment and the Virginia Tech Graduate Research and Development Program along with scholarship funds for research from the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation to purchase eight units, which are the property of the schools. In addition, the PTAs at two Roanoke City schools chipped in to buy their schools’ weather stations, which cost about $500 each.

Finally, Parece used funds from a Cabell Brand Center for Global Poverty and Resource Sustainability Studies scholarship for outreach to hire Virginia Tech students as field assistants to install and maintain the weather stations.

Into the classrooms

Tom Fitzpatrick, science supervisor for Roanoke City Schools, embraced the idea of installing the weather stations. The city already had stations at three schools; Parece’s efforts raised that number to 15. Most stations were installed at elementary schools with a few at middle schools. Grant writing began in April 2012, and the first weather station was installed in May 2013.

“It’s been exciting to see kids get involved in some hands-on science with live data,” said Fitzpatrick.

He noted how children are learning to graph various kinds of data, such as temperatures at different locations. They’re also learning how to make weather forecasts — they can look at changing data patterns and interpret what’s happening, such as a thunderstorm passing through.

Students feel ownership of the weather stations, according to Fitzpatrick. “It’s on the roof of their building,” he said. “They can see it.”

A receiver inside the school building connects to the Internet and sends the weather station’s information to a website called Weather Underground. A search on “Roanoke, VA” at the website brings up a list of Roanoke weather stations, including those installed in the schools. Data reported include temperature, humidity, wind, and elevation.

The weather stations have been incorporated into math and science classes, and have even been used in history classes. A class on the history of Virginia taught fourth graders to use Weather Underground to find another weather station in a geographically distinct part of the state, such as the Piedmont or the Coastal Plain. Students then compared the weather there to the weather in their own Blue Ridge region.

Other interdisciplinary applications, such as providing video weather reports, may not be far behind, said Fitzpatrick.

Virginia Tech student involvement

Several Virginia Tech students were involved in the project as part of their studies. Geography master’s student Paul Miller of Franklin, Tenn., was tapped to install software on all the weather stations. He played a key role in getting the observational data online via Weather Underground.

Miller noted that teachers can find many ways to make weather data engaging to students. “Ask them to take a pine cone from outside and see if it’s closed or opened up,” he said. “Then ask them to look at the observations from their weather station.”

Miller calls the experience a “huge source of professional development,” and he thinks about how children will be using the weather stations 20 or 25 years from now since they’re built to last.

Mario Garza of Albuquerque, N.M., a senior majoring in meteorology, already had a degree in computer networking and had worked in the technology field in San Diego for a while when he decided to come to Virginia Tech for a meteorology degree. The university introduced the meteorology program, the first of its kind in Virginia, in spring 2012.

“When I read that Virginia Tech was introducing the program, I started planning to move,” said Garza. “As a kid in eastern New Mexico, I lived near Tornado Alley. I remember hearing tornado sirens when I was 10 years old. I would get on my bike and try to chase those storms!”

Garza says his first degree was “for money,” but the meteorology degree is “for love.” When he heard Parece needed someone with a strong technical background to help install the weather stations, Garza volunteered. He has also participated in Virginia Tech’s Kids’ Tech University, a monthly program in the spring semester that allows children and parents to interact with experts on a number of technology issues.

“At Kid’s Tech events last spring, I got a lot of questions about the derecho that hit in June 2012,” said Garza, referring to the violent burst of storms that caused destruction across a wide swath of North America. He expects to field inquiries about this year’s polar vortex at upcoming program events.

Both Garza and Miller have plans to pursue higher degrees in geography, meteorology, or a combination of both. “The two go hand in hand,” Garza said.

Effecting positive change

The weather station project in Roanoke City schools has been a great success, according to Parece.

“It was great to get the ‘buy in’ from the school system to install the weather stations, but we wondered if the teachers were going to use them,” said Parece. She got an answer to that question quickly.

“The teachers were immediately asking, ‘When are your students coming down? When can you help us learn how to use this?’” she said.

Meanwhile, Parece is collecting data from the weather stations for use in her study of urban agriculture, which she calls a “geographical concept.”

“It’s not about agriculture. It’s not urban studies,” she said. “I’m looking at the environment. I’m looking at the human aspects, both social and economic.”

Food insecurity, storm water drainage, urban “heat islands” — all of these things are included in Parece’s study. She wants to learn why these phenomena occur and what might be done to improve conditions in which people live. Of utmost importance is that her research could be used to effect positive change.

“That’s what being a geographer is about,” she concluded. “We are not separate from the environment.”

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