Penn State students win fifth straight national weather forecasting contest

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For two weeks in October 2015, students gathered in Penn State’s Walker Building to discuss the weather in Long Island, New York. The next two weeks, they discussed the weather in Durango, Colorado, followed by two weeks of discussing Tampa Bay, Florida, two weeks of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and more cities after that.

This exercise was part of class, but the students also used it to enter forecasts for each of the cities in the Wx Challenge, the North American collegiate weather forecasting competition. Their dedication — meeting four nights a week for 10 weeks in both the spring and fall semesters — paid off, as the students won first place in the Wx Challenge. This is the fifth straight year that Penn State has taken home the Wx Challenge trophy.

“It’s pretty unbelievable, considering the fact that we’re up against around 2,000 other forecasters competing in the contest,” said Matthew Brown, a graduating senior in meteorology who has been on the winning Penn State team two years in a row. “Being the best in the nation is pretty amazing, and the fact that we’ve done this five years in a row is unprecedented.”

The contest, which is run by the University of Oklahoma, pits students, alumni, staff and faculty from universities across the U.S. against each other in a challenge to make the most consistently accurate forecasts. They forecast daily high and low temperatures, precipitation, wind speed and other aspects of weather for two periods for each of the 10 designated U.S. cities.

“Being the best in the nation is pretty amazing, and the fact that we’ve done this five years in a row is unprecedented.”

-- Meteorology student Matthew Brown

Any competitor’s score is included with their university’s total, but only the top five get their names engraved on the Wx Challenge trophy. The five names on this year’s trophy are Michael Goss, a doctoral candidate in meteorology, and Brown, Zak Aronson, Michael Priante and Matthew Strauser, all undergraduate meteorology students.

Class is a recipe for success

Penn State’s success in the competition is built on one course in particular, METEO 215 Weather Forecast Preparation Laboratory, said Goss, the course's instructor, who has his name on the Wx Challenge trophy for the third time in his four years of competing.

“The class is set up to be a combination of doing the forecasts for the Wx Challenge and also teaching people through experience how to forecast,” he said. “We talk about how to forecast and what variables seem important for a city, but everyone makes their own forecast in the end.”

Goss leads students through hundreds of factors to consider when making a forecast. Typically, forecasters rely on any combination of information from dozens of numerical prediction models such as the North American Mesoscale, which outputs temperature, wind speed, lightning and other weather-related data. Forecasters also use radar, satellite and other imagery to analyze clouds near cities.

“A big part of forecasting is narrowing down what factors you want to look at, because you don’t have time to look at everything,” said Goss. “That’s one benefit of having a class discussion about each forecast. Sometimes people will notice that, for example, one prediction model has historically been less accurate for a specific city. Many other universities don’t have a course like this.”

group of students

Students from METEO 215.

Image: Michael Goss

More than a class and a competition

Though it is focused on making Wx Challenge forecasts, the class is about more than just trying to win.

“Because you’re going from city to city, you’re not learning how to forecast for a city. You’re learning how to approach forecasting in general,” said Brown.

Brown and others in the class have become a tight-knit group over the duration of the course, which has added a personal element to the class.

“The course and the contest are about consistently making good forecasts. The fact that I can do this with friends and win as a team is special,” he said.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable how much forecasting skill you amass, even in just a semester.”

-- Meteorology student Matthew Brown

Completing daily forecasts for the 20-week competition gives students a chance to gradually build up their forecasting skills through practice.

“Halfway through college, I didn’t feel like I was that great of a forecaster, and now my name is on the trophy for the second year in a row,” said Brown. “It’s absolutely unbelievable how much forecasting skill you amass, even in just a semester.”

“For me, one of the most gratifying parts of instructing the course is seeing the improvement in students, and it happens every year,” said Goss. “That comes mostly from experience, not just figuring out biases of different models, but also what resources are good to look at in different contexts.”

Building self-confidence and appreciating group dynamics are an unintended yet beneficial part of the course, which Brown equates to a holistic personal development experience.

“The course teaches you to be very humble about your forecasting. Everyone on the team knows that each of us has strengths and weaknesses, and that we have good days and bad days. Everyone’s input can matter,” he said. “It’s a real confidence builder. You learn to trust your gut with forecasts and to stick with your gut even if it turns out to be wrong in the end. But if it is, you figure out why and improve for the future.”

The students in METEO 215 are eager to get started on next year’s competition, which kicks off in September. For more information on how to get involved in the Wx Challenge, contact Kyle Imhof at kai5024@psu.edu

Last Updated April 28, 2016