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.