18:00 PM

The Engineer of Oz

Pitt Engineering Science student Noah French builds a mobile weather station in his junior design class to chase tornadoes throughout the country

Noah French

There’s no place like home. 

Growing up in a neighborhood not far from the Windy City, Noah French, a rising senior studying engineering science at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, became fascinated with weather after a tornado touched down near his hometown and caused significant wreckage in 2021.  

“Many people don’t realize Chicago is close to Tornado Alley – a loose region throughout North America where tornadoes are more common – so it gets significant storms,” French explained. “I just remember waking up and all the trees were down in my neighborhood. That was the start of my storm chasing career.”

Temperature and pressure and humidity – oh my! 

French used his “Junior Design Fundamentals” class at the Swanson School to create a mobile weather station that could be used to detect severe weather events like tornados and storms in a target area. 

The class, a requirement for all electrical and computer engineering students but also open to engineering science students, has two main goals: teach students the design process in the context of electrical and computer engineering applications as well as hands-on skills that can bring ideas to life – just like French did. 

Mobile Weather Station

Sam Dickerson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Undergraduate Computer Engineering Program, said this is the first time a mobile weather station has been built in his class. 

“In the class, we let students design whatever they want; it’s an individual project,” Dickerson said. “We want them to pick a project that has meaning to them personally. For Noah, that’s weather, and he took that opportunity to build something that he could use for his storm chasing adventures.” The initial design started with a sketch on paper that then moved to a rough prototype. After integrating different sensors that could detect temperature, pressure, and humidity and adding a circuit board, French connected a microcontroller to communicate with those sensors to read their data. Once that data was able to be projected onto a screen, French could view weather patterns within the weather station’s proximity. “I already had bits and pieces of the weather station laying around,” French said. “I didn’t need to build it completely from scratch.” 

To make it mobile, French originally planned to strap the weather station to the top of his car. He decided that pulling his car over and setting up in one location was safer — and legal. 

“I didn’t want to be pulled over,” French joked. “I sometimes see other storm chasers’ vehicles with their weather stations on top, and I can’t help but wonder how they’re skirting around police officers.” 

Once the semester ended, he and two friends hit the road with the weather station in tow and went chasing after storms for over 5,000 miles across twelve states throughout Tornado Alley in ten days. Other than just tornados, the group of friends were hoping to see supercells in their travels. 


“Supercells are rotating thunderstorms,” French said. “These rotations make them exceptionally powerful, but they’re also really cool and pretty.” 

French, having been a storm spotter for the National Weather Service, is an experienced storm chaser. After taking classes at a local community college before coming to Pitt, French is confident in both the safety and science of storm chasing. 

“I know how to recognize the warning signs of an area becoming dangerous,” French said. “We always had an escape route planned away from the storm.”

There’s no place like Iowa 

The group felt pretty underwhelmed by the storms they were tracking – until they got to rural Iowa. 

The Hawkeye State sees a peak in tornado season between May and June. French said they were only in the state for one day, but “you can’t get much better and badder than Tornado Alley in May.” The day of the chase, the group of young storm chasers found themselves following a tornadic supercell that eventually began to die out. 

“The question was now whether we should call it a day or go back to our original target area and hope for another storm to initiate.” 

The answer to their dilemma was in the dew point – the temperature the air needs to be cooled to in order to reach relative humidity. Predictive models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) showed a lower dew point, meaning there was low energy in the air and thus further storm development was unlikely. French measured the dew point on his own and found that it was significantly higher than what the models predicted. He and his team decided to stick around, and it turned out to be the right call. 

“The second half of the day ended up having the best storms of the whole trip,” French said. “Had we not had a method of directly measuring the dew point, we would have likely decided to leave and missed the show!” 

Dickerson said it’s gratifying for both the instructor and the student to learn something in the classroom, watch it come to life and then use it. 

“It’s just really cool to see,” Dickerson said. 

It’s a Twister…in Pittsburgh!

French may not have to travel much further than Pitt to storm chase. 

Areas of the northeastern United States, Pennsylvania included, have seen a significant rise of tornados the past five years. Connecting climate change to the increase of tornados is complicated, but as temperatures rise, intense weather events are more likely to occur in unusual areas. 

If a tornado were to touch down in Pittsburgh, French plans on being there – or anywhere for that matter. 

“I definitely plan on storm chasing again in the future,” French said.