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The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated October 5, 2001

Meteorology, Oceanography, Liberal Arts


Science is an essential part of a liberal-arts education. At nearly every college and university, students can study the pure sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology, and usually one applied science: geology. Institutions of higher education should add to their curriculums two other applied sciences: meteorology, the science of the atmosphere, and oceanography, the science of the ocean.

What do meteorology and oceanography have to do with other disciplines in the liberal arts? Here are a few connections: Aristotle, an author important to classicists and philosophers, wrote a four-volume work on meteorology. As biologists know, life began in the sea. Historians give stormy weather credit for helping the British navy defeat the Spanish Armada. Art historians tell students of Monet's paintings that the atmosphere affected the colors he saw on the cathedral at Rouen. Geographers know that most people live near the ocean. Weather plays a large role in the economy, especially in agriculture. Computer scientists know that the biggest, fastest supercomputers available are used to predict the weather. In fact, virtually all liberal-arts subjects are related to the atmosphere or ocean in some way.

Having connections with other disciplines, however, is not enough to warrant inclusion in the liberal-arts curriculum; the subject must focus on a significant aspect of human life. Meteorology and oceanography meet that criterion, too. First, students will deal with weather and climate every day of their lives.

Second, many real-world, front-page issues are in the province of meteorology or oceanography: global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, air pollution, coastal flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes, toxic algal blooms (like Pfiesteria), and managing development on barrier islands, to name a few. Our society will have to make difficult, expensive decisions about all of those issues. As academics, we need to educate our students about them.

Third, verification -- an essential part of critical thinking -- is at the heart of meteorology and oceanography. Every one of us makes predictions or forecasts all the time: That car is going to the right, so I should be able to avoid it by moving to the left. If I buy tickets to the theater, I can still pay the bills. Writing that paper will probably take me until midnight.

Meteorologists and oceanographers learn not only to make predictions, but also to verify them by assessing their accuracy. Those assessments are crucial both to using forecasts and to improving them, yet outside of meteorology and oceanography, they are seldom taught systematically.

Fourth, meteorology and oceanography are useful for undergraduates. They are multidisciplinary, drawing not only on physics and mathematics, but also on chemistry, biology, computer science, and other disciplines. They are challenging: Conditions affecting the wind and waves are different every day. They are omnipresent, with the entire outdoors part of the laboratory. And they're fun, as many fans of the Weather Channel know.

If meteorology and oceanography are so valuable, why are they not already part of the liberal-arts curriculum? Perhaps the answer lies in economics. Geology, a more widely taught applied science, has for centuries helped locate economically important minerals, metals, and fuels. Until recently, weather forecasting has not been accurate enough to have much value. As François Arago, director of the Paris Observatory and permanent secretary of the Academy of Sciences in France, wrote in 1846, "Whatever may be the progress of sciences, NEVER will observers who are trust-worthy, and careful of their reputation, venture to foretell the state of the weather."

Although national weather services have been in existence for more than a century, and the hydrodynamic equations that govern the motion of the atmosphere and the ocean have been known for nearly that long, only since World War II have we had the computers and worldwide networks of weather balloons and marine buoys that are necessary for modern predictions of the weather and the state of the sea. The radar and satellite data with which today's short-term forecasts are made have been available only since the 1950s and 1960s, respectively.

Today, we can predict the weather and state of the sea 10 days into the future with a good degree of reliability, and those predictions have become a staple of modern life. We can get forecasts from government weather services, the news media, private weather companies, the Internet, and even a dedicated cable-TV channel. But college curriculums haven't kept up with the growing interest in meteorology and oceanography.

Perhaps another reason for the neglect is that we oceanographers and meteorologists haven't been paying enough attention to colleges and universities. The practitioners of both sciences have considered them to be research, rather than academic, disciplines. Both have offered researchers plentiful money and challenging careers. Meteorologists and oceanographers have tended to seek employment with governments, private industry, or research universities; few have taken jobs at liberal-arts colleges. We have thus done a disservice both to students and to ourselves. We have denied liberal-arts students access to our sciences and reduced the base of popular support for our fields.

It is time to make meteorology and oceanography part of the liberal-arts curriculum throughout academe. The growing population on our planet is placing increasing demands on the atmosphere, land, oceans, and species with whom we share the earth. Teaching what we know about those systems to our students today makes it more likely that they will be able to make the informed decisions that tomorrow will require.

Stanley Q. Kidder is a senior research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University. Leonard J. Pietrafesa is a professor of marine, earth, and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University. Paul J. Croft is an associate professor of meteorology at Jackson State University. They are members of the American Meteorological Society's Board of Meteorological and Oceanographic Education in Universities.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Page: B18

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Copyright © 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education