Throughout his long and illustrious career in meteorology, not everything went to plan for Perry Samson.
In fact, he never planned on becoming a meteorologist. He had every intention of becoming a rock star.
“But they expect you to have some talent,” Samson said. “Which I thought was unfair.”
And he certainly didn’t plan on becoming a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Michigan, he only decided to interview because he was trying to be cheap.
“I applied for the job in Ann Arbor literally hoping, not that I would get hired because I didn’t think that that would happen,” Samson said. “… but that they would pay for my room as I drove from Albany to Madison … I’m a cheap guy.”
And he absolutely didn’t plan on starting a weather site — The Weather Underground — that receives tens of millions of visits every month. Rather, it began as a simple attempt to look intelligent in front of his students by being able to tell them what the weather was going to be each day.
“He came in one day and he said, … ‘I want you guys to make me look smart,’” Frank Marsik, associate research scientist and lecturer in the College of Engineering, said. “‘I need to know what the weather’s going to be that day. Nothing’s more embarrassing for a meteorology professor to go into class, have students ask him and you not know.’”
But regardless of what his initial plan was, he did all of these things, from never-was-rockstar to one of meteorology’s most celebrated thinkers and the University’s most esteemed professors.
He wasn’t supposed to. His success was not a product of some greater design. He simply took what was in front of him at every step of his life, looked for the most logical path forward and turned opportunities that he couldn’t have predicted into much more than they should have been.
That’s part of the reason Samson has never fit neatly into a concrete professional description. Because for Samson, there’s very little that he isn’t.
“He’s just Perry. He’s an enigma,” Rackham student Kaleb Clover told The Michigan Daily.
And while any description would be largely inadequate in fully capturing the enigmatic Samson, it’s worth a shot:
Perry Samson is a tornado-chasing, major weather-conglomerate co-founding, educational tool building, emmy-winning, meteorological-trailblazing, entrepreneurial professor of atmospheric sciences with a specialty in air quality. He’s spent the past four decades teaching at the University; every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he could be found standing at a lectern, teaching Climate 102: Extreme Weather, to students like me, who had minimal interest in the weather and an even more minimal intent of becoming meteorologists.
“If you ask about the story of Perry Samson, it’s not the story of a great forecaster, it’s not even the story of a tornado chaser … Perry’s is the story of innovation,” Tim Keebler, Ph.D. student, and a former GSI for Samson, said.
With so much that could be mentioned, it’s impossible to define Samson by just one feat that he’s accomplished. Heck, it took me hundreds of minutes of interviews before someone even thought it worth mentioning that a documentary made about a trip he led won an Emmy. Yet, everyone brought up Climate 102 right away.
So if you have to tell the story of Perry Samson — if you want to best capture his innovation, personality and the impact he has had on students — you should tell it through the lens of his most constant project. Climate 102: Extreme Weather.
Two of Perry Samson’s most impactful career decisions involve coming up with catchy names. One of those names he remains proud of, one he slightly regrets.
Climate 102 wasn’t always called ‘Extreme Weather,’ and it wasn’t always a 100-level class. It was originally a 30 person, 200-level College of Engineering course titled “Weather & Climate.” As a young professor at the University, fresh off of “bumbling” through college at the University of Albany searching for a passion before finding atmospheric science, Samson decided that meteorology shouldn’t just be for engineers.
So, he revamped three classes and made them more amenable to the average student. He reorganized their curriculums, made them 100-level, triple listed them in different departments and most importantly, gave them catchy names. Climate Science became “Our Changing Climate,” “Rocket Science 101” was introduced and his career-long pet project, “Weather & Climate,” was reborn as “Extreme Weather.”
The advertising gimmick worked. Better than he could have ever expected.
“It raised the number of student credit hours in our department by like an order of magnitude,” Samson said.
Extreme Weather’s enrollment rose eightfold, but it presented new challenges — namely how to keep those new students, likely only interested in fulfilling the LSA’s natural science credit, engaged. So to keep students entertained, Samson had a graduate student build a tool that allowed him to display the current weather in cities around the nation.
“I thought this was the cat’s meow because I could look smart in front of the students at nine in the morning,” Samson said.
Unbeknownst to him and his students, however, the Telnet sessions created as a fun trick would quickly be turned into much more.
“The National Science Foundation called and said, ‘Well, that’s brilliant. We want to give you a grant to apply this to education,’” Samson said. “So this became the first interactive map where we could just roll over the map, and it’d give you the current weather at cities across the country. And we would take this to conferences across the country, and we would fill auditoriums with people sitting in the aisles to see us with this huge computer we had to bring with us and a payphone with a coupler so we could actually get a signal.”
Samson became the original “CEO or President” (he can’t remember which) of what has become an enormously successful weather site that was less fortunately named The Weather Underground — not to be confused with the terrorist group.
“In retrospect not the best choice of names,” Samson said.
Poorly, or perfectly, named, the site has become massive. It takes in more than 62 million monthly visits and has been sold multiple times, most recently to The Weather Company, an IBM subsidiary. He could have ditched teaching to pursue this monumental business opportunity, but he chose not to — it just wasn’t where he felt at home.
“That’s not where my heart was,” Samson said. “My heart was more in teaching … At the point I got tenure, it occurred to me that it’s really an obligation at that point to think about ‘How are you going to take the education in your discipline and make it accessible to more people?’”
And that’s exactly what he’s done.
I enrolled in Extreme Weather the fall semester of my freshman year, and it was unlike any other class I had taken at the University. It was by no means easy, but it was a class that gave you every opportunity to succeed. You got to choose how much homework, tests and projects were worth. Lectures were interactive in that they tested you in real time, multiple choice questions would randomly pop up and interactive maps would ask you to identify features on weather maps. And if you didn’t understand the lecture but were too nervous to raise your hand, you could shoot an anonymous question to an open forum where a GSI would answer in minutes. And every class started with the simple question of, “How do you feel today?”
That’s what always shocked me when I was in Climate 102. Here was a professor quite literally at the top of his field. Someone who had helped bring the weather to the internet, a co-founder of a meteorological service I used every day growing up, and he was choosing to teach me — someone who took the class only because my freshman advisor had advised me to take “easy” natural science credits, and Astro 101 was full already.
But I loved the class. I talked about it all the time. I did the extra reading. I actually went to office hours. I showed up to lecture all three times a week. He talked about the weather for an hour, and I left with a smile on my face every time.
I didn’t realize at the time how intentional that was. Because while some professors may view an introductory course filled with listless students as a burden, Samson viewed it as a challenge. In his mind, a lack of interest wasn’t an indictment of his students, it was an indictment of how they were being taught. He dedicated a lot of his career endeavoring to overcome this challenge by going through it, when he could have used his status to get around it.
Indeed, I’ve had many classes taught by professors who start the semester with a dissertation on their pedagogy of inclusive teaching while leaving unclear what that actually looks like. Professor Samson never gave his class that spiel, he talked through his actions and through them, he spoke loudly. He didn’t just find tools others created to have us use. He was the one who built them, decades ago. In fact, he founded platforms like Echo 360 and Course.work that are now used to educate millions of students worldwide, simply because he was inspired by Climate 102, and he wanted to make it easier for students to engage, regardless of whether they could make it to class or could sit through a traditional lecture.
“He understood also that students learn differently, and he was trying to make his classroom inclusive before we were talking about inclusivity in classrooms,” Marsik said, referring to Samson’s expert integration of technological tools in his in-person classroom.
And that approach helped his students while other professors floundered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He taught online and hybrid before anybody else did,” Keebler said. “The format of (Climate 102) barely had to change at all because of the pandemic.”
Perry Samson has announced that he is retiring, but he readily points out that his career is not yet finished. There’s more innovation to be had, more programs to be created, more ways to imagine teaching and still a few more classes to be taught — even one final iteration of Extreme Weather next semester.
But even if he fully stepped away from teaching and meteorology, Perry Samson’s career would continue to have an impact because his career never stopped at just one thing. He was never just an educator or just a meteorologist or just an innovator. He was all of these things at once, and he didn’t spend his career waiting for institutional improvements. Rather, he spent it building those very improvements.
“Perry was always after the next thing,” Marsik said. “He was always the cutting edge.”
Through it all, he has never left Climate 102’s side. It was a give and take. He gave the students a learning experience that would work for them no matter who they were, and they gave him ideas for what he should build next.
That’s been his biggest joy during his time at the University. It took me a while to understand that. I didn’t get why he would even bother with students like me who knew nothing about the weather and never planned on doing anything with it. But to think that was to miss his point.
“He likes (teaching Climate 102) because of people like you,” Keebler told me. “People who open the book and read something that they’ve never thought of before. To him, that’s the most rewarding thing. You can teach somebody who knows the weather all day, and they’ll be engaged, and they’ll be excited … But through the 102 class, he’s also enhancing perspective … He’s inspiring people. You’ve been inspired … He made an impact on you.”
And he did.
That’s why I’m writing this piece about a class I never expected to care for, covering a topic I never would’ve given a second thought to. Because he’s the type of professor who makes the weather worth writing about.
He may not have gotten to be a rockstar, but he found an equivalent.
“I had the highest expectation I was going to be a rock and roll star in the ’60s and have big audiences,” Samson said. “Well, I have big audiences now, and I love the interaction with students in the classroom. There’s some energy there that flows back and forth that I get as well. Hopefully the students get some, but I certainly get it back … That’s a special, special thing.”
And it is, for everyone involved, including those who never expected to love the weather.
Statement Columnist Charlie Pappalardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.