Ric Lowe, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Curtin University of Technology
UniServe Science News Volume 6 March 1997

CAUT Report

Interactive animation for developing weather map interpretation skills.

Ric Lowe

Mean Sea Level charts (commonly known as weather maps) are a fundamental way of representing meteorological information. They are widely used in the teaching of introductory courses in meteorology as a means of explaining weather phenomena. However, research (Lowe, 1993a, 1994) has shown that beginning students of university level meteorology typically lack the specialised visual interpretative capacities required to use these displays effectively in their learning. These deficiencies arise because the students know little about the distinctive characteristics and dynamic behaviour of various major meteorological features. Therefore, when presented with a static weather map, they have a poor appreciation of meteorologically-important patterning that gives meaning to the map's markings and how such patterning alters over time. The problems that diagrammatic material pose for beginning students of technical domains are probably widespread across a range of different subject areas because of the specialised, abstract nature of such representations (Lowe, 1993b). It is therefore likely that the explicit teaching of specific visual literacy skills as embodied in this project should be extended into graphic-rich scientific domains other than meteorology.

This project allows students to explore dynamic weather map sequences that are based on highly typical Australian summer patterns. It aims to help students develop the capacities necessary to make meteorologically-reasonable predictions of how weather map patterns change over time. The package is made up of 6 modules that treat different aspects of weather map structure and dynamics. The early modules deal with nature and behaviour of key structural components of meteorological patterns. A qualitative treatment is used to introduce students to the identity, position, shape, size, organisation, movement and internal changes of these structures.

Identifying the Features

The first module of the package deals with readily-apparent features (such as pressure cells and fronts) while the second concerns more visually-subtle aspects (such as troughs and ridges). To ease the visual information load on the learner, individual feature types can be selected and their animation followed in isolation from the rest of the meteorological pattern. The local or wider context can be added later when the learner feels ready to cope with more information. In the second module, students learn to detect the tell-tale signals (such as isobar inflections) that indicate the presence of a trough or ridge and hence identify the axis of such a feature.

Constructing and Altering

The third and fourth modules introduce the skills required to arrange meteorological features on a map and alter them appropriately with the passage of time. In module three, learners construct a simplified weather map structure by adding shapes representing the main features to a blank map. Different clues are available to guide the construction process. Module four presents learners with a simplified weather map structure (of the type constructed in module three) and challenges them to alter it to show how the pattern would have changed over various time periods.

Contouring and Predicting

The final two modules deal with processes involved in drawing weather map patterns. In module five, learners are presented with a synoptic chart from which an isobar has been removed. Their task is to supply the missing isobar by shaping a given line to the contours that should be present according to the missing isobar's context. The learner uses special shaping tools to introduce contours into the line so that it has the form and position expected of the missing isobar. The final module requires the application of what has been learned in the previous modules. Using the information on a given synoptic chart (the 'original'), the learner's task is to produce a prediction of the pattern on a subsequent chart. As well as having reference to the original chart, the learner takes a number of restricted glimpses of small areas of the subsequent chart. These glimpsed fragments are then printed off and used as a basis for completing the prediction.

Evaluation and Field Testing

During first semester 1997, there will be a trial of this package with beginning meteorology students at Murdoch and Curtin Universities. It will be used both for lecturer-directed classroom teaching and as a learning resource for use by students outside of class time. Preliminary testing has shown that the open-ended exploratory characteristics of the package allow students to shape their learning activities in a highly individualistic manner. Further testing will investigate which learning strategies result in the most productive outcomes from the package. Merv Lynch, School of Applied Physics, Curtin University, also worked on the project.


Lowe, R.K. (1993a). Constructing a mental representation from an abstract technical diagram. Learning and Instruction,3, 157-179.

Lowe, R.K. (1993b). Successful instructional diagrams. London: Kogan Page.

Lowe, R.K. (1994). Selectivity in diagrams: reading beyond the lines. Educational Psychology, 14, 467-491.

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UniServe Science News Volume 6 March 1997

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