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"Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into innovation."
-Dean Kamen

The History of Project STORM    

One of the most informative (and more humorous) scientific efforts that Dr. Schmidt has devised in his career is undoubtedly his STORMcasts.  In fact, Schmidt has admitted he has met people for the first time in social settings that seemed to know him already but only as the “STORMcast guy”.  What most do not know, however, is that what is now the STORMcast began as a totally educational project before there was readily accessible Internet or even email in schools.

The Early Years (Sandy Run Middle School)

Weather prediction and observation have always been one of Schmidt’s favorite meteorology-related skills all the way back to when he was a child watching late night thunderstorms from his bedroom window so when Upper Dublin School District undertook its very first district-wide technology initiative in 1995, Schmidt was eager to 

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The original Project STORM logo, ca. 1995

take advantage of the district’s new “Excite” teacher technology grants.  Only two years into his career and with funding from the district’s very first technology grants, he launched Project STORM (Science, Technology, Observation and Research in Meteorology), a multi-phase technology initiative specifically designed to enhance the capabilities of school district’s earth science program at Sandy Run Middle School.  Over the next five years, Project STORM would ultimately operate four, student-monitored and maintained remote sensing instrument systems from his classroom that collected a variety of real-time atmospheric data 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

In the Fall of ‘95, the first of these instruments, a Wards Satellite Data Acquisition System went online.  This DOS-based system was designed to receive and process APT (Automatic Picture Transmission) signals from United States NOAA and Russian METEOR polar-orbiting weather satellites.  As their signals were received, the developing live scan could be directly viewed on a computer screen for instant interpretation and analysis.  At the time it was first introduced, student volunteers assembled and disassembled the satellite’s antenna two days a week before and after school since the satellites’ orbits only allowed for signal reception on a few occasions throughout the day and the antenna lacked a permanent roof-mounted location.  In addition, the team had no satellite tracking capabilities so actual time of satellite signal reception was generally guessed at and often contained a large margin of error.  In spite of these shortcomings, these few eighth graders were the very first to pioneer what would someday evolve into the district’s current high school meteorology program.  

Close on the heels of the Ward’s satellite system, two new instruments were introduced.  The first, a WeatherMAX weather station manufactured by Maximum Inc., was capable of monitoring atmospheric conditions throughout the year and allowed for long term climatological studies.  Within the first few years of its installation, the WeatherMAX station recorded data from such major Philadelphia weather events as the Blizzard of ‘96, the El Niño event of 1997-98 and the record setting rainfall of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

The third system set in place in 1995 was the StormTracker Lightning Detection System by the Boltek Corporation.  Based upon a sensor capable of detecting the electrical emissions of lightning up to 300 miles from the detector, the StormTracker system provided students with the ability to detect incoming severe weather long before it affected the immediate area.   As storms approached, close observation of the WeatherMax station and NOAA or METEOR satellite imagery provided incredibly accurate information about tropical and extra-tropical storm systems and the passage of frontal boundaries for students to examine as they occurred.  To accommodate the ever-increasing amount of maintenance and analysis from the new systems, interested students were divided into two separate teams to handle the workload.  The first team, dubbed STRAC (Satellite Tracking, Recovery and Analysis Concept), was charged with the maintenance and processing of all information obtained through the Wards satellite system while the second, called SWORD (Severe Weather Observation, Recording and Detection), was to take charge of the weather station and severe storm data.

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Original graphics for the STRAC and SWORD student weather teams, ca. 1997. Pictured in the STRAC image is the NOAA-15 polar orbiting satellite launched in 1998.

In the Spring of 1997, Schmidt’s next satellite project that he named GOSTARS (Geosynchronous Orbiting Satellite Tracking, Acquisition and Relay System), was introduced.  Consisting of a powerful satellite receiving system that tapped into the federal government’s EMWIN (Emergency Managers Weather Information Network) datastream from orbiting satellites, GOSTARS brought a constant feed of weather information and severe weather bulletins from around the United States into the classroom for instant discussion or analysis.  Along with the coordinated use of Internet sources at the same time (still a novelty in classrooms at that time), the weather bulletins could not only be read but local radar images from the areas affected could be seen at almost the same time.  At various times throughout the school year, this integration was especially useful in the analysis of severe thunderstorms where characteristic but often short-lived Doppler radar hook and bow echo signatures could be observed and saved for later use in lab activities or discussions.  The system was driven by the Weathernode software administered through Xenocode, Inc.  Schmidt’s weather instruments and the computers that drove them were some of the very first classroom technology assets of the Upper Dublin School District to be linked to a new and upcoming technology tool, the Internet.

 

Schmidt’s middle school teams were kept busy with the constant influx of data from all of the program’s systems and by 1999, newer versions of software and hardware made computer upgrades inevitable in order to sustain the teams’ initiatives and Schmidt’s classroom turned into a testing ground for much of the district’s newest computers and peripherals.  Around the same time, it was also becoming a common occurrence for school personnel to request information about upcoming weather patterns in order to plan special events and other science instructors from around the district began to show an interest in obtaining the data collected by Project STORM instruments for their own classes.  As a result, the main focus of the 1999-20000 school year became the integration of the team’s data on the Internet.  With this goal in mind, new computer hardware was added and earlier software for both the StormTracker and WeatherMax systems was replaced with Internet-ready versions.  This data feed remained in place for use across the school district until Schmidt was asked to lead an effort to introduce the geosciences to the Upper Dublin High School in 2000 after considerable parent and student interest was expressed for this new science program.

Project STORM Comes of Age (Upper Dublin High School)

In the Fall of 2000, Dr. Schmidt was brought to Upper Dublin High School as an instructor of Environmental Science and General Science.  Neither position would “stick”, however, since Schmidt would launch his first full-scale Advanced Earth and Space Science (AES) curriculum and would completely rewrite the General Science program to become the state’s very first, full year Forensic Science curriculum by the following year. 

With a full year of Advanced Earth and Space Science now on the books, Schmidt had to completely rebuild his meteorological instrument systems and immediately set out garnering grant funds for his Project STORM Initiative in 2002.  Its notoriety well established by this point, funding was quickly garnered to purchase new instruments through the district’s Education Foundation (UDEF) Mini-Grant program.  Over the years, the UDEF has funded many of Schmidt’s initiatives (not just in meteorology) and he has been immensely grateful for their continued assistance.  The STORM grant (Phase 1) saw the installation of a Davis Instruments Vantage Pro weather station and a new Boltek StormTracker Lightning Detector.   Around the same time, STORM added its most sophisticated satellite system to date, a High Resolution Picture Transmission (HRPT) satellite receiver from Timestep, a British amateur radio and satellite provider.  Unlike the earlier APT systems that had an immobile, omnidirectional antenna, the high resolution nature of HRPT imagery required a 3 foot dish antenna mounted on a motor-driven mount capable of tracking the satellite across the sky.  Schmidt fondly recalls several funny stories associated with this system.  The first occurred the very day the dish antenna was delivered by truck to the high school on a snowy day in 2005.  The dish was large enough that it was place flat on the back of a flatbed tractor trailer but was practically invisible as it was covered in snow.  However, the other dish antenna the truck was delivering to a company in the region, a 12' diameter one that was perched upright on the trailer was very visible and caused a jaw dropping moment by the high school principal when he thought that one was what had been ordered.  

The second story dealt with the system’s nickname.  Long an “accomplice” to many of Schmidt’s technology initiatives all the way back to the original STORM grants of the mid 1990s, the Mr. Matt Toner, the school district’s electrician was a frequent partner for the installation of the various weather instrument systems and he played an indispensable role in the installation of the HRPT satellite dish and motor system called the Emotator.  Unable to remember the name of the unit, Matt always called it Imhotep (after The Mummy franchise movies) and the name stuck.  When the original Upper Dublin High School was demolished in 2008, the very last piece of the original high school to be knocked down was the wall that Imhotep was attached to since no one could figure out what it was or what would happen if it was knocked down.

Somewhere around this time (Schmidt does not remember exactly when), the addition of email allowed him to easily disseminate his severe weather forecasts to interested users across the district and the STORMcasts were born.  What Schmidt did not realize though is that district staff were forwarding his forecasts (a combination of science and his own sarcastic humor) to others all over the Philadelphia region and it soon became apparent that the UDHS STORMcasts were reaching ever larger audiences whether or not they were associated with school or not.  Shortly after realizing the STORMcasts had indeed gone viral, Schmidt added a specific STORMcast page to his newly launched Internet domain “geochief.org” (a combination of his geoscience background and assistant fire chief position) in order for other non-school district personnel easy access to the forecasts.  A subsequent STORMcast Twitter feed was

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"Imhotep", the very last piece of UDHS to remain standing before its final destruction, ca. 2008.

also added to handle other non-email based “subscribers.  The STORMcast page on the geochief website continues to be the tool by which Schmidt posts and disseminates his forecasts.  Today, it is believed the STORMcasts reach well over one thousand people in at least three states with at least three to five thousand hits common for special weather reports (especially snow forecasts) that could impact schools.  Schmidt’s forecasts are also routinely used in planning for events like after school sports as well as special events like high school graduations.   

As the new high school was being built between 2008 and 2012, Schmidt already had an eye on how the weather instrument systems would be rebuilt (for the third time) when the new facility was completed.  This foresight even extended to the addition of special pipe chases that connected his classroom with the roof to expedite the running of the necessary cables to connect his classroom computers to the roof-mounted weather instruments.  

 

At the same time the new high school was being built, several curricular changes would significantly enhance meteorology instruction at UDHS.  First, Schmidt completed extensive course work in weather forecasting through Penn State University’s World Campus that led to a Certificate of Achievement in Weather Forecasting.  This program took Schmidt’s meteorological knowledge to brand new heights of competency and proved to be instrumental in developing the meteorology curriculum of the brand new Advanced Geosciences (AGS) curriculum, the first high school meteorology in Pennsylvania to be accredited by a four year university.  To create this university-level program, Schmidt emulated what he had seen and learned from his alma mater Penn State University, one of the top meteorology schools in the nation.  This included creating a scaled-down version of Penn State’s thirty-six screen, room-sized electronic wall in the campus’s weather center.  Working closely with the school district’s technology coordinator and information technology staff, Schmidt and several others procured the funding and designed a massive wall-mounted, nine screen electronic wall nearly ten feet across and six feet high that would form the nerve center for all of the program’s weather instruments and Internet sources.  The system was powered by a specially designed Dell Precision T7500 computer capable of running all nine monitors in addition to the weather instruments themselves.  Completed in time for the grand opening of the building in January 2012, it represented the most innovative classroom technology solution the new high school had to offer and was usually a stop-off point for visiting school district, technology and political representatives.

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The UDHS Weather Wall, ca. 2014.  The wall shows various live and Internet-based weather feeds including the Boltek EFM 100 Electric Field Monitor (middle left), Boltek StormTracker lightning sensor and Lightning 2000 software (bottom center), GRLevel3 Doppler radar software (top center) and the Davis Instruments Vantage Pro2 weather station (right center).

The UDHS meteorology program has continued to evolve with a near constant infusion of technological tools that reflect advancements in meteorology and Schmidt’s vision for a curriculum that provides students with a realistic look at the geosciences (including meteorology) as a viable undergraduate program of study and possible career path.  This infusion has included the addition of the GRLevel3 and GR2Analyst Doppler radar analysis software from Gibson Ridge Software, LLC in 2013 that allows students to process and analyze both National Weather Service Level II and III Doppler radar imagery in real time.  In 2014, a Boltek EFM-100 Electric Field Monitor was added to provide short range monitoring capabilities of nearby thunderstorms, a tool that Schmidt has used innumerable times to alert coaches of impending dangerous weather.  In 2019, the original STORM computer was replaced with a Dell Precision 5820 tower equipped with a single Nvidia NVS 810 graphics board to support new advancements in graphics cards and the Windows operating system.

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Damage from the EF2 tornado of September 1, 2021 on Loch Alsh Ave. in front of UDHS.  The tornado would partially destroy the township building (off the left edge) and caused extensive damage to the high school itself requiring remote instruction for several weeks while the building and property were deemed safe for students and staff.

Epilogue

For the 2021-22 school year, Dr. Schmidt had chosen to take a sabbatical leave and was driving home through Indiana from his summer employment in Montana when the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through the Philadelphia region on the first day of school, September 1, 2021.  At approximately 5:40 EDT, a strong EF2 tornado (one of several in the region that day) struck Fort Washington pummeling several neighborhoods and traveling directly over Upper Dublin High School and the Upper Dublin Township municipal building across the street.  The tornado caused extensive damage to the high school roof and was powerful enough to rip several large HVAC units from their mountings.  In spite of the damage however, the STORM sensor suite also mounted on the high school’s roof survived (although it was heavily damaged) and provided data through the event including a one hundred 

twenty-one mile per hour wind gust.  Schmidt passed this data on to the National Weather Service as it was the only ground-based instrument directly in the path of the tornado during its brief ten minute life span.  As of the writing of this text, the damaged instruments were in the process of being replaced as part of the district’s damage claim and will hopefully be back in service for the 2022-23 school year. 

While it is sometimes difficult to determine Dr. Schmidt’s actual “specialty” in the geosciences, the development of Upper Dublin’s Advanced Geosciences meteorology curriculum remains unmatched in a Pennsylvania public high school and his efforts to educate both his students and the general public through his informational and usually “off-beat” STORMcasts remains a major part of his day when severe weather is expected.  To back up these forecasts, Schmidt has successfully won over $40,000 in grant funding since the program’s humble beginnings at Sandy Run Middle School in the 1990s and he continues to look for opportunities to grow the program’s capabilities to this day. 

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The display screen of the STORMcast Center's Vantage Pro2 weather station indicating the 121 mph wind gust recorded during the September 1, 2021 tornado event.  A section of the natatorium roof located no more than 50 feet away from the weather station was partially stripped from the building by the severe winds.