Geography doctoral candidate Tammy Parece of Blacksburg, Va., wanted to find the best locations within the city of Roanoke, Va., for growing gardens. “I’m interested in the health and welfare of the urban population,” she said. “Food security, meaning how available food is in neighborhoods, plays a big role in the health of cities.”

That idea, which became part of her dissertation study, led Parece to spearhead an effort to install weather stations on the roofs of a dozen Roanoke City schools so that she could conduct research using geospatial technology to optimize urban agriculture. Meanwhile, a generation of Roanoke school children is growing up learning about forecasting weather.

Tom Fitzpatrick, science supervisor for Roanoke City Schools, embraced the idea, recognizing the benefit of strengthening the local curriculum in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The city already had stations at three schools; Parece’s efforts raised that number to 15. “It’s been exciting to see kids get involved in some hands-on science with live data,” said Fitzpatrick.

He noted how children are learning to graph various kinds of data, such as temperatures at different locations. They’re also learning how to make weather forecasts. Students feel an ownership of the weather stations. “It’s on the roof of their building,” Fitzpatrick said. “They can see it.”

A receiver inside the school building sends the weather station’s information to the website Weather Underground, which is available to the public. Data reported include temperature, humidity, wind, and elevation.

Parece drew from a number of sources to fund the project, including her own grants and scholarships, and several Virginia Tech students were involved. Geography master’s student Paul Miller of Franklin, Tenn., was tapped to install software on the stations and played a key role in getting the observational data online. Mario Garza of Albuquerque, N.M., a senior meteorology major, drew upon his strong technical background to help install the stations.

So far, the project has been a great success. “It was great to get the ‘buy in’ from the school system to install the weather stations, but we wondered if the teachers were going to use them,” said Parece. She got an answer to that question quickly. “The teachers were immediately asking, ‘When are your students coming down? When can you help us learn how to use this?’” she said.

Meanwhile, Parece is collecting data from the weather stations for use in her study of urban agriculture, which she calls a geographical concept. “It’s not about agriculture. It’s not urban studies,” she said. “I’m looking at the environment. I’m looking at the human aspects, both social and economic. That’s what being a geographer is about. We are not separate from the environment.”