Learning about the Physical Principles Behind Weather through Technology

By Dr. Brian Forster


In January 2012, I wrote an entry for the CAS Technology blog entitled “Technology in the General Education Program Natural Science Laboratories.” In that article, I discussed the technology used in the GEP lab-based natural science courses designed for students who are not majoring in science. This semester, a third course was introduced “Exploring the Physical World” (Phy113) taught by Drs. Douglas Kurtze and Brian Forster. During lecture, students learn about the weather while in the laboratory, they analyze current weather conditions and learn the physics behind these weather patterns.

St. Joseph’s University has purchased access for Phy113 students to obtain current and past weather data from the American Meteorological Society. Student computer stations throughout the lab allow students a look at our weather in relation to the topic being discussed during lecture (Figure A). A goal for our course is that by the end of the semester, students could simply look at weather conditions and be able to make their own forecasts instead of relying on the weatherman!

As with our other lab-based courses, Phy 113 utilizes Xplorer GLX readers for a wide variety of experiments. These readers have been extremely useful in not only the GEP lab-based courses, but in other science courses too. These courses include Drs. Jonathan Fingerut and Piotr Habdas’ Biomechanics course as well as Dr. Catalina Arango’s Environmental Microbiology course.

The attachment probes we use in conjugation with the Xplorer GLX for Phy 113 are the ideal gas law chamber (Figure B) and the solar panel (Figure C). In the gas law chamber, a syringe controls the volume of gas inside the tube. Pressure and Temperature probes are connected to both the chamber and the Xplorer. As students manipulate the volume of the gas, they are able to see the relationship between the pressure, volume, temperature and density of a gas. As the students perform more experiments, they are challenged to refine their ideas for the relationships between these properties of a gas.

A solar panel allows our students to learn about solar altitude, or how far above the horizon the sun is in the sky. The solar panel has a temperature sensor that can plug into the Xplorer GLX. A halogen bulb lamp serves as our sun. Using this experimental design, students can learn the relationship between temperature, solar altitude and our seasons. The solar panel also allows students to model the greenhouse effect. If it is a clear day outside, these panels can be used “in the field” (aka outside the laboratory) to calculate solar altitude as well.

The Xplorer also serves an important pedagogical function. For our students who are less experienced in the technique of graphing, they can see how the data is plotted out to assist them in properly preparing, graphing and analyzing their data.

In addition to this technology, several of the physics experiments that our students carry out use common household items. In a recent lab for example, students learned about angular momentum. This concept is used by figure skaters who spread their arms out when they wish to slow down their rotation. We used common household supplies to illustrate this physical principle.

We hope this emphasizes to our students that many concepts in science can be seen and performed in their everyday lives. You just need to stop, look around, observe and wonder!
To learn more about these labs and their technology, please contact Dr. Brian Forster (bforster@sju.edu).

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