Forecasting the Future

By Mary Frances Monckton Hendrix

Gray skies are not in the forecast for the meteorology program at the University of the Incarnate Word, but even so, students are about to witness a perfect storm.

Alex Garcia, an adjunct professor at UIW, shows how the control panel will work at the university's new meteorology studio.

Meteorology, which was added just four years ago to the School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering, is in the final stages of creating a state-of-the-art meteorology broadcast studio and Forecasting Lab in the Bonilla Science Hall.

“We’ll have a weather computer that is broadcast quality,” said Alex Garcia, an adjunct professor who is also the chief meteorologist at KABB/FOX 29 in San Antonio. “In fact, it’s the same as the ones in use at KENS and KABB. When (students) leave, they can step into a job situation immediately because they’ll know how to work the equipment already.”

When the studio is ready – the goal is September – about $300,000 in equipment will have been installed by Beck Associates Austin, a television systems company that has done work for FOX News, FOX Sports, and many universities, Garcia said.

“It’s all the things necessary to create a television production facility,” Garcia said, checking off the list of equipment on order: HD studio cameras, a weather graphics system, a production switcher, audio boards, microphones, monitors and feedback units.

“It will be different, not a normal classroom. It already looks different,” Garcia said, referring to the once-empty room that now has lights and a lighting grid, a Chromakey, also known as a green screen, and a Cyclorama or “Cyc” curtain to create a black backdrop.

“The system we have now will actually have a forecasting component,” Garcia said. The room next door will be a climate lab. “There’s no rip-and-read here,” he noted, referring to the practice at some television stations where staffers simply pull information from the National Weather Service to be broadcast.

“The students who have signed up for weathercasting are so excited. They can’t wait for it to be done,” Garcia said. “The studio will be high-level, something this university has never had.”

But such a studio has been in the forecast for some time, according to Dr. Glenn James, dean of the School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering. He credits UIW President Dr. Louis Agnese and the Development Office who led the $14 million Capital Campaign that built the AT&T Science Center and allowed the Bonilla Science Hall, which was built in 1950, to be completely refurbished in 2006.

The infrastructure was provided two years ago, James said, when AT&T, as a principal donor, helped create the two rooms that were set aside for this purpose. “That paid to create the control room, to install the professional studio lighting. We’ve been waiting to fill it in with the equipment.”

Garcia explains how students will use the green screen, or Chromakey, to create their own broadcasts in UIW's weather studio in Bonilla Science Hall.

That equipment now comes through a Title 5 grant and “by the grace of God,” James said. That’s where good forecasting pays off.

He said writing the grant proposal was fairly simple. “The faculty help out with strategic and long-range planning and, in the big picture, the faculty own the academic programs. Every year the faculty do an assessment and every five years they do a big program review to set their priorities. All I had to do was pull out the ideas they already had and tailor them to what the grant would allow. So for the weather studio, that thought and reasoning had already been done.”

Having that plan in place allowed Incarnate Word, as a Hispanic-serving institution, to qualify for $2 million over two years to be invested in science, technology, engineering and math efforts. About $400 million was awarded throughout the country, assisting nine categories of minority programs, James said.

The grant will assist more than Incarnate Word. He noted that part of the spirit of the Title 5 grant is to build more bridges between two-year and four-year schools. “Our contributing partner is St. Philips College, which this year is starting a sequence of courses in meteorology,” James said. St. Philips’ coursework will allow their students to transfer easily into the Incarnate Word program.

“When you want to major in meteorology in Texas,” Garcia said, “you can only go here or (Texas) A&M. They focus more on the operational side. We do operational and broadcast.”

Of the 50 students in the meteorology program, some will choose to focus on the operational side, which James said “will qualify them to work for corporations or governments – FedEx, oil companies, the Air Force, the Department of Defense – they can do all of that. In broadcast, they take the science so they can do the forecasting and also study the showbiz side of it.”

Garcia noted, “They don’t all go to TV, which is good. We’ve given them the options to do that.”

Be sure to read the accompanying story "Alumnus’ future determined by weather," also in this issue.