Revitalization of UQAM Atmospheric Science Undergraduate Programme

– By René Laprise and Julie Mireille Theriault –

Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), laprise.rene@uqam.ca, theriault.julie@uqam.ca

The enrollments in Atmospheric Science (AS) programmes are rather low in Canadian universities, and the situation at UQAM is no exception. The low profitability of AS programmes threatens the long-term perspectives for training specialists in atmospheric-related fields. (See the report by the interest group on Education, Training, Communication and Outreach (ETCO) of the Atmospheric-Related Research in Canadian Universities (ARRCU) working group.) Nevertheless, Canadians depend on weather, climate and air quality information to plan everyday activities, make informed financial and business decisions, and plan effective infrastructures. Atmosphere-related scientific experts are needed to provide high-quality information about weather hazards, climate variations and projected changes, and related impacts. AS programmes in Canadian universities provide the required education to fulfill the needs of our society in these areas, in order to increase its resilience and reduce its vulnerability and losses due to weather-related hazards, especially in this time of rapid climate change.

Some measures were recently taken at UQAM in an attempt to improve the situation of its AS undergraduate programme, as described below.

The historical situation at UQAM

Atmospheric Science (AS) programmes exist at UQAM since 1973. They were initiated through a contract from the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) to provide a weather forecasting training in the French language to satisfy the Official Language Act adopted in 1969. AS rapidly became the dominant specialization of the Physics Bachelor programme at UQAM. A Master program was added in 1976 and a Ph.D. in 2008.

The AS undergraduate programme underwent several modifications over the years. A major one occurred in 1995 following the closing of the Physics Department, and another one in 2008 with the creation of a joint Bachelor programme in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (BSTA), with two concentrations: Geology and Meteorology. The joint BSTA entailed a large common trunk between the two concentrations to reduce its operating costs: 10 out of 30 courses (recall that in Québec, B.Sc. is 3 years, following 2-year CEGEP – College of General and Vocational Education). Registrations in the Meteorology concentration of that programme remained low however, and even fizzled over time, threatening the survival of the programme, despite the fact that it is the only one in Canada to offer French-language training in this specialization.

A thorough programme evaluation revealed several issues, some common to all Canadian AS programmes, others specific to the UQAM one.

1. AS programmes are generally designed and perceived as a specialization of Physics. This is problematic in the context of a general downward trend of interest for “hard” science (science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM). Viewed as a specialization of Physics, AS can only hope to get a fraction of the small number of students registering in Physics, which clearly limits the potential size of AS cohorts.

2. In a typical AS curriculum, Mathematics and Physics are taught in the first semesters, followed by AS courses in the latter part. This sequential approach makes difficult maintaining motivation of students interested primarily in AS and their applications.

3. The common trunk courses in the joint BSTA programme at UQAM had a strong Geology slant, creating additional challenges to maintain motivation of AS students.

4. The Meteorology concentration was strongly oriented towards theory, with little experimentation, applications or laboratories.

Beginning in summer 2018, a serious brainstorming was undertaken, involving professors, students and the Faculty management, to improve the AS programme and increase the number of students. After lots of discussions, debates and scenario considerations, a consensus was reached for building a new AS programme based on a radically new approach.

The approach consists of taking advantage of a peculiar condition at UQAM: the absence of a Physics Bachelor programme. In universities where a Physics programme exists, the AS programme must take Physics courses from the Physics curriculum, which forces the aforementioned sequential approach. The distinct situation of UQAM allows integrating the required classical Physics concepts within the AS courses. The resulting effect is that students learn AS basics from the start of their Bachelor, rather than at the end. As a consequence, for example, synoptic meteorology is taught in the 3rd semester, allowing more time to integrate, assimilate and apply AS notions. The vision of the new AS programme is that of a distinct, autonomous discipline, rather than a specialization of Physics.

UQAM_Atmospheric_Science_Class
Photo of students attending the first class of the Atmospheric Physics course, September 3rd 2019. The group includes students from 1st and 2nd year.

The New Atmospheric Sciences Programme at UQAM

The name of the AS Bachelor programme was changed from “Météorologie” to “Sciences de l’atmosphère : météo et climat”, to reflect the dual importance and complementarity of meteorology and climate, and the diversification of the job market.

The new Bachelor programme contains 14 AS-specific courses (out of a total of 30):

  • 9 courses cover AS theory,
  • 2 courses cover AS-specific mathematics (Mathematical Physics, Numerical Methods),
  • 3 laboratories (weather charts, instrumentation and measurements, numerical experimentation).

The programme is completed by courses taken from existing programmes:

  • 6 courses provide useful tools (Scientific Programming, Geographic Information System, Risks Communication, Statistics and 2 other courses in Mathematics),
  • 3 courses provide broadening to related fields (Atmospheric Chemistry, Oceanography, Hydrology),
  • 2 courses for projects or internships.

The programme is completed with 5 elective courses depending on the choice of specialization:

  • Computer science and data processing,
  • Environment, water and risks.

A new one-year programme “Certificat en sciences de l’atmosphère” was also created as an introduction to AS with a minimum of mathematical formalism. Such one-year programmes are popular at UQAM. Students can obtain a Bachelor diploma through a combination of 3 certificates. An interesting sequence would be, for example: Certificat en sciences de l’atmosphère, Certificat en ressources énergétiques durables, and Certificat en sciences de l’environnement.

In addition, the weekly weather discussion, which had become rather sporadic after the loss of the late Prof. Peter Zwack, has been resumed and is greatly appreciated by students. Several measures were undertaken to promote the new AS programmes and give them more visibility. The web site was improved to describe all the AS programmes (https://scta.uqam.ca/futurs-etudiants/les-sciences-de-latmosphere-luqam/), and provide a list of professional opportunities, testimonies of past students, and a description of some of recent students’ projects.

The outcome

In September 2019, 14 students registered in the AS Bachelor programme and 7 in the Certificat en sciences de l’atmosphère. This can be compared to previous Fall registrations of 6 in 2016, 5 in 2017, 7 in 2018. Although it is too early to claim victory, the statistics are encouraging. But continued efforts will be needed to consolidate the growth of the AS programmes at UQAM.

More Like This:

ARRCU, Atmospheric Science Undergraduate Program, Certificat en sciences de l’atmosphère, Rene Laprise, UQAM

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