ASEE PRISM - October 2000
Sand, Sun, Surf, and Oh Yeah, Learning

By Michael Barrett

Valaparaiso students measuring wind velocitiesThe volume was low enough that I could barely discern Stephanie's voice accompanying Simon and Garfunkel. Although she was nearly buried under Jason's and Mike's luggage in the back of the minivan, her voice provided assurance that an avalanche hadn't occurred. Good thing--some of the instrumentation was packed near her. The first day of our two-day road trip from Valparaiso, Indiana to Galveston, Texas was rolling to a close. No one was hurt, nothing was broken and we hadn't been separated from the second van carrying our other four team members--a successful start to the research trip by any standard.

Thanks to the National Science Foundation and a number of organizations at Valparaiso University, participants in the Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research in Turbulence Program were conducting their first field study. Students in the program evaluate the applicability of different turbulence-modeling techniques in atmospheric flows by comparing atmospheric data with laboratory measurements. Three meteorology students, five mechanical engineering students and I--a second-year assistant professor of mechanical engineering--were traveling to Galveston to measure turbulent wind velocities in the atmospheric boundary layer.

Valparaiso University students prepare to measure turbulent wind velocities in Galveston, Texas, the island where as many as 12,000 people were killed by the 1900 hurricane--the nation's most deadly natural disaster.
We chose Galveston because of its rich weather history, the tropical nature of its weather systems, its proximity to colleagues at the University of Houston and the NASA Johnson Space Center and--oh yeah, the beach. In preparation for our trip, a historical review of weatherman Isaac Cline's life revealed that Galveston's September 1900 hurricane was the nation's most deadly natural disaster, with as many as 12,000 people killed by the storm. In the days before weather radar, forecast models or satellites, the lack of warning took a large toll. The trip would give the students a personal feel for the scale of the tragedy. night, while some of us tested equipment, the scouting team headed to the beach to find a suitable location for the instrumentation boom. The boom, which was built by engineering and meteorology students, is a variable-height tethered tower that places delicate hot wires up to 35 feet above the ground. The Tuesday Gulf Coast sunrise was beautiful--even if 5 a.m. was a little early for a wake-up call. We arrived at the beach, erected the boom and began taking data. Accompanied by ominous clouds, the rain started as we were hurriedly disassembling the boom and packing the equipment. The metallic boom was certainly the tallest item on the beach--we were happy to get our "lightning rod" into the van without incident.

Since our first data-gathering session was cut short by--of all things--bad weather, we spent the afternoon visiting the Galveston historic district. That evening allowed for troubleshooting of some instrumentation using the wind tunnel at the University of Houston Turbulent Shear Flow Lab. After about an hour of anemometer troubleshooting, the students found that DIP switches, while tiny, are actually pretty important.

The next day, the students toured the NASA Johnson Space Center where they captured memories that will be forever cherished. Meeting astronauts, standing at the Mission Control consoles where Apollo 11 was guided to the surface of the moon, and sitting in the Space Shuttle flight-deck simulator burned at least five roles of film.

Thursday's weather was gorgeous. The beach-goers were abundant--and so were their puzzled looks. The Galveston police officer concluded that we looked like we knew what we were doing, so he simply cautioned that we not startle a passing horseback rider's trusty steed. By afternoon, we had successfully completed the data acquisition, and most of the students set off for sightseeing, including viewing a multimedia documentary of the 1900 storm.

The return trip home was subdued. We were all tired--in a very good way. We planned entirely too much for a three-day stay yet achieved all of our objectives. We gathered the necessary atmospheric velocity data, and viewed the coastal area that was devastated by the hurricane. I settled back in the driver's seat prayerful for a safe return, especially thankful for the fellowship of the past few days. My favorite quote about the trip was from Jason, "Galveston--sand, sun, water and the spectral dissipation of turbulent kinetic energy--cool." I couldn't discern Stephanie's voice over our group sing-along to "Piano Man."

 To find out more about the project, see

 Michael Barrett is an assistant professor
of mechanical engineering at Valparaiso University

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