NORMAN — A team of students at the University of Oklahoma has come up with an inventive way to educate children about how to watch out for tornadoes and other potentially deadly weather. Juniors Andrea Balfour, David Harrison and Marissa Beene created Storm Evader, a gaming app aimed at students in middle and elementary school.
“It teaches you sneakily,” said Balfour, who is double majoring in computer science and meteorology. “We didn’t want it to seem like we were telling kids ‘sit down and learn,’ but ‘sit down and have fun.’”
The three students met in a programming class taught by Amy McGovern, a professor of computer science and an adjunct professor in meteorology. Balfour, Harrison and Beene were what McGovern called her “front-row students.” With funding from a National Science Foundation grant, McGovern was able to hire them.
The game uses real data collected from the National Weather Service to generate 18 increasingly challenging levels. Players can select up to nine airports to which they must chart courses. The storms that move around on the screen look exactly like what a child would see watching a radar weather forecast on television. Fly a plane into a storm, and the player risks losing points or even the plane.
“Sometimes we were almost having to pry it out of a kid’s hands so someone else could have a turn,” Balfour said. “The game has several modes: free play, career mode and endless mode. We had to keep them away from endless or they’d never quit.”
Of course, the point of the game isn’t to teach kids how to fly planes. The real value of Storm Evader is in teaching students how to read radar and understand forecasts. When severe weather appears on a real screen, they’ll know.
The free app was released for iPad and iPad Mini around Christmas. Before that came the testing phase. The game was demonstrated in November at the National Weather Center’s annual Weather Festival, and later by Balfour for a Girl Scout troop whose leader was another meteorology student. It was an instant hit.
Storm Evader’s popularity wasn’t limited to children, however. In February, McGovern, Balfour and Harrison attended the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in Atlanta, where they gave a presentation on Storm Evader to an audience of hundreds of meteorologists from around the world. More than one attendee left the meeting with a new app freshly downloaded to his or her device.
“In recent years, we’ve had big tornado outbreaks,” said Harrison, a meteorology major minoring in computer science. “If we can teach people about the tools they can use to predict where storms are going to be, we can create a weather-ready nation with fewer deaths and more awareness.”