Ball State students get real-world experience by chasing severe weather, storms

Photo of tornado. (WISH photo)

MUNCIE, Ind. (WISH) — While radar technology has allowed us to pinpoint storms down to a neighborhood level over the past few years, we still rely heavily on storm spotters to confirm what we see on radar. One central Indiana university has a course devoted to getting students out of the classroom and into the real world to improve their forecasting skills by teaching them lessons they cannot learn with textbooks alone.

Following each spring semester, a small group of Ball State University meteorology students take part in a field study which takes them out of the classroom and puts them into the real world.

“The storm-chasing class is a two-week field course in which students improve their forecasting skills in trying to observe severe storms, sometimes tornadic storms, in the Great Plains,” explains Reuben Allen, an assistant teaching professor in the Ball State geography department.

Dr. David Call, associate professor of geography describes the unique course further, “We get up in the morning, we forecast them, we follow them and we see what they do.”

A top priority while learning about this dangerous subject is safety. Rules are in place and strictly followed to keep both students and professors safe.

“Before we head out on the trip every year, we also have several days in the classroom and we focus a lot on how to chase storms safely. Storms are dangerous. There are tornadoes and lightning kills people every year. Lightning is one of our biggest hazards actually because every thunderstorm has lightning. We spend several days in the classroom reviewing safety tips. We have a bunch of rules; we don’t chase on interstates, we don’t chase in cities and we don’t chase at night. We even make the students take a quiz before they go on the trip to make sure they are aware of all of these rules so we can stay safe,” says Dr. Call.

Once everyone is on the same page, the class climbs into university vans and heads out to the Great Plains for 10-14 days, literally wherever the weather takes them.

Dr. Call is no stranger to the storm-chasing trip. He’s been taking Ball State students to the Great Plains for at least a decade now. He adds, “The class is also neat because it’s a chance to explore the Great Plains. A lot of our students haven’t been to the Great Plains before and some haven’t even been very far out of Indiana, so it’s a great chance for them to see some of the things that are out there!”

Sophomore meteorology student Rebecca Garrett has already completed the field study, which took her to more places than she originally imagined she would go. “You get to see some really cool stuff — there was a lot more travelling than I thought there was going to be, which was awesome.”

Sometimes the weather doesn’t always cooperate. If there is no severe weather in the forecast for a particular day, professors and students use the downtime to do some sightseeing.

“On those days where we really didn’t have any chasing opportunities, we were able to see some very cool landmarks. We went to Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone. I went to places I never thought I’d get to go to in my life. It was really cool to go to these places and given the opportunity,” said Ball State senior Balint Szalavari of his experience with the storm chase class.

While the trip itself can be an adrenaline rush for all who are involved, it is more than just a two week, tornado-filled thrill ride. The class prepares students for life after graduation.

“This immersive experience — this real world experience is priceless, because they can learn things in the classroom, they can learn things in their textbook or from their peers or even from professionals on tv, but nothing can replace being in the field and seeing things first hand,” says Reuben Allen when asked how the course prepares meteorology students for the real world.

Interested in becoming a weather spotter? Click here for a list of times and locations for spotter training information.