The Innovative Weather Center is housed in the old Alumni House along the lakefront – originally a wedding present in the 1920s it was donated to the state in the 1960s, serving as a dormitory at the old women’s college. The weather center has two offices, and if you have ever listened to WUWM, you have heard broadcasts from their tiny audio room, on the current weather forecast.
Hidden along the shore of Lake Michigan is a small unit of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a remarkable impact on the local community. The Innovative Weather Center – founded in 2007 by director Paul Roebber, to bring hands-on, real life forecasting experience to UWM students in Meteorology who were operationally minded – now provides tailored commercial weather forecasting support for some of our region’s most critical infrastructure. Most notably, they support the electric power grid with customers Alliant Energy and WE Energies, helping them forecast weather events up to twenty-four hours in advance for the sake of, among other things, scheduling on-call technical support resources, and monitoring events as they occur in support of dispatch.
The program started tentatively – and not without its detractors – with the hire of Paul’s former student, Mike Westendorf (a regular voice on WUWM) to direct daily operations, and who is the center’s only full-time staff. This led to engagement with WE Energies, who like all clients, started out tentatively and began to rely on the center as they developed trust. In a world of perpetual push toward automation – an area where Paul himself is an important researcher – the center relies more on a human expertise of the region, which Paul believes is essential for the tailoring of their forecasts to local clients, and cannot be replicated with a scaled automation. Today their clients also include Lake Express Ferry, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), and the Brewers.
It is not hard to see the impact that such work can have on a young student’s career. Imagine the resume building experience of a qualified college senior being asked to monitor events overnight from the office for the sake of protecting our power grid as part of a paid position, and it begins to make sense why people who make it through the program are often the preferred candidates for highly competitive weather forecasting positions. The program is nevertheless sensitive to the demands of student life and dedicated to placing individuals, also offering limited-term staff positions to students who have graduated, as they seek the right position in the market.
Despite budget cuts, the program is not going anywhere and should be seen as a signature of the University. Currently the program covers all student costs and a portion of Mike’s salary. Under Paul Roebber’s direction, the program is in the hands of a talented and flexible researcher with distinguished accomplishments and academic pedigree (see article A Man for All Seasons, by Laura Otto and Paul’s TedX talk Do, Fail, Learn… And Do Some More). Meanwhile, scholarships funded by local businesses who realize the value of the program are coming in, with the Brewers, Lake Express, and MMSD all recently funding scholarships, with the first class of students on the inaugural Weather Innovators scholarship coming in this year. As weather prediction expands into the overall market for risk mitigation, the program should expect to be capable of also placing more students into the insurance and finance space, where the region already has a notable presence. The program, in short, deserves the full attention and support of the region.
Written by Casey S. Schroeder for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. Casey is a regular contributor to MASA. More of his work can be found at atheoryof.me