Mississippi State University students enrolled in a physical science course take their seats for their 10 a.m. class. After discussing the previous material and homework, the instructor moves behind the desk, grabbing a guitar and a blazer that is decorated with felt clouds and glittery lightning bolts. He straps the guitar around his body and tunes it. The college students quietly giggle, but no eyebrows are raised. They know what awaits them with this instructor’s style of lecturing. Within minutes, on a regular Wednesday morning in a physical science lecture, the instructor and students are singing lyrics together such as “How hot is it? It’s so hot!”
The instructor is Bob Swanson, also known as “Singing Weatherman,” “Stormin’ Swanson,” “Singing Swanson” or, simply, Mr. Swanson. Swanson’s lectures are anything but average, and the genesis of his teaching style can be traced back to his two generally culturally opposed careers: scientist and artist.
Swanson’s resume is evidence of his varied interests and knowledge. The Pennsylvania-native earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and philosophy with a minor in mathematics from the University of Scranton. He then went on to earn his master’s degree in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University. After completing his master’s, he taught high school students science in Maryland, worked as a weatherman in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Tennessee and worked for USA Today in Washington, D.C. After a lot of migrating, Swanson eventually found himself back in Mississippi to be closer to family. That is when he started working as a college instructor.
His venture into his musical weather education began during his time as a television meteorologist. Elementary teachers would call the television station to ask for a meteorologist to talk to the students, and one day, he was assigned to a classroom of preschoolers.
“I’d never really dealt with three and four-year-olds, and it was a disaster,” Swanson said while laughing. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to survive doing this, I need to spice up my act.’”
“Spice up” is exactly what Swanson did.
“I went back to my apartment and tried to write a weather song. I wrote a couple, a song called ‘The Weather Riddle Song’ and ‘The Weather Wiggle’ and I was nervous about them. I sheepishly played them at my next classroom talk, and pretty soon the teachers and librarians were calling in the station asking for ‘the guy with the guitar,’” Swanson said.
Eventually, Swanson was performing anywhere from 80-100 weather shows a year, doing them mostly in his own time because of his new-found love of live performance.
“You find actors who really don’t like television; they prefer stage performance. I’m the same way. I’m not crazy about film, because I like the immediate feedback and the interaction of a live audience. On television, you might be going into thousands of homes, but you have no idea how they’re receiving the information. You can’t tell their response when you’re staring into a camera,” Swanson said.
Swanson started as a vocalist with a guitar, but now he has progressed his musical abilities to mandolin, harmonica, banjo and accordion.
“I find it physically rewarding. I enjoy the feel of playing,” Swanson said.
Bob Swanson might have different names, but no matter his title, his mission as a performer and a scientist is the same: to teach people how to think.
“I try to communicate to my students that the scientific method is not restricted to those who work in laboratories. It’s all too often packaged as that, but it’s really just the critical thinking skills we employ every day of our lives,” Swanson said. “No matter what career you are in, the more you can understand your prejudices and biases—we can’t eliminate them—but the more you can be aware of them and account for them, that will make you, in my mind, a better person. Certainly, a better student.”
This belief is tangibly reflected on Swanson’s guitar. The front of his instrument reads, “THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS CERTAINTY AND FORCES IT TO THINK AGAIN.” Swanson explained the quote is an allusion to past musicians, such as Woody Guthrie’s guitar that bore the inscription, “This machine kills fascists.” He hopes the quote will cause his audience to examine their own certainties.
“The things we are most certain about, how did we arrive at that? That’s one thing I try to communicate to my students, by giving them tools to drill down. That will make us better scientists, better students, better human beings,” Swanson said. “This applies to our politics and all the things that cause strife. If more people had the tools to step back and assess their own beliefs, they might realize their reasons for believing ‘X’ might not be so well-founded.”
Swanson even has an entire lecture dedicated to this topic called “I Can’t Believe I Believed That: Facts and Fallacies in Physics and Astronomy.”
“These are things that I once taught to my students as fact because I thought they were true, only to realize later on that I had either taught them incorrectly or incompletely. Having the humility and ability to take that in has made me a much better teacher, and I hope my students can pick up on the sincerity and the honesty in that,” Swanson said.
According to Loraine Walker, the children’s librarian for the Starkville Public Library, his fame might one day reach that of past musicians’ but for a different reason.
“He is the next Bill Nye or the next Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is spreading the word about science in a fun way. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 or 20 years we don’t see someone on a space shuttle, giving a thank you speech, and Bob Swanson is the first name off their lips,” Walker said.
Andrea Berryhill, a freshman education major and one of Swanson’s students, also recognizes the unique nature of Swanson’s methods.
“I’ll always remember his singing because he loves to sing. But I’ll mostly remember how he tells us to go out into the world and think of things in a scientific way. He says, ‘Ask yourself questions about why things happen,’” Berryhill said.
Berryhill has also caught on to the humility Swanson encourages.
“The first day of class he said, ‘This is a class that’s going to change your perspective on things, so are you going to be willing to change your perspective?’ He wants us to keep an open mind about science and our beliefs,” Berryhill said.
Berryhill plans to be an elementary school teacher and noted Swanson has shown support and given advice for her in their similar career path.
Those interested in contacting Bob Swanson for a performance, hearing his music or purchasing a CD can visit his website, www.storminswanson.com.