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June 9, 2014

Weather app puts kids in pilot seat

NORMAN — Kids growing up in Tornado Alley are used to bright, splotchy radar patterns moving across a television screen, and most know the difference between a tornado watch and warning. But do they understand how to read and predict the weather based on radar images and forecasts?

Students at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Engineering wanted to remove the mystery around weather forecasting by speaking to kids in a language they could better understand — gaming. Collaborating with the School of Meteorology, OU students created an app that teaches kids about weather patterns by putting them in the pilot seat to navigate a plane during weather events. The game encourages kids to see meteorology as a problem-solving tool rather than just a segment of the evening news.

With funding from a more than $600,000 National Science Foundation grant, Amy McGovern, OU associate professor of computer science and adjunct associate professor of meteorology, and engineering students Andrea Balfour, David Harrison and Marissa Beene created Storm Evader, an iPad app aimed at elementary and middle school students. The app challenges players to route airplanes from one U.S. airport to another while avoiding pitfalls like difficult weather patterns and long routes that waste fuel.

The app features two modes of game play — free play and career play. In free play mode, players fly their planes during actual recorded severe weather events, including the widest tornado documented in history in El Reno on May 31, 2013. In career mode, players are encouraged to delve deeper by researching weather forecasts before deciding the safest route for their planes. In both modes, players can give control to the computer to help find the best route to the correct airport.

“We want to teach kids about weather in a fun and interactive way,” said Harrison, a sophomore majoring in meteorology with a minor in computer science. “In Storm Evader kids see how weather forecasting and radar works in real-life and can actually solve problems.”

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