Thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle, Perry Samson BS ’72, MS ’74 makes his way to the top of Mount Evans, located in southwest Greenland. Blanketed by sweeping views of a vast polar landscape, desolate yet eerily beautiful, he approaches a group of college students he’s led there on a research expedition. A young man holds up the sagging shreds of a giant white weather balloon that, until a moment ago, he’d carefully floated above the team on their long hike from the base of the mountain. The instrument exploded on some sharp rocks when it met a sudden gust of wind at the summit, he explains to Samson. They won’t be able to take their measurements. Samson pauses, makes a joke that relieves the tension, and the mission continues. “In science, if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough,” he later explains.
The scene is captured in The New North Pole of the Winds, an Emmy Award-winning documentary that follows Samson, a distinguished University of Michigan professor of atmospheric sciences, and a team of fellow researchers and undergraduate students from Michigan, UAlbany and Virginia Tech on their scientific journey to Greenland to record weather conditions and observe the effects of climate change up close.
Now retired, experiential learning like this was a hallmark of Samson’s teaching style. Although not all his students can say they conducted fieldwork on the world’s second-largest ice sheet. Over his 43-year career, he garnered a reputation for embracing and, at times, creating technology to make learning immersive. He has been honored with numerous distinctions for his innovation in the classroom and scientific achievements. This past spring, he returned to his alma mater to accept the 2023 UAlbany Alumni Excellence Award in Science and Technology.
So how did a small-town, first-generation student become a revered professor, leading science scholar and EdTech entrepreneur? According to Samson, it was “a weird set of coincidences, good luck and unusual faculty.”
Samson arrived at UAlbany in 1968 from Binghamton, NY on a Regents Scholarship. It didn’t go well at first. “I came here for two days and then left. I didn't feel like I belonged here,” he explains. “But my family forced me to come back, and I struggled. I struggled for a while until I found my footing.”
That footing was found in an unlikely place: on the high peak of Whiteface Mountain. While still an undergrad, Samson took part in an experiential learning opportunity in the Adirondacks that exposed him to field research. “Suddenly I connected the two polar parts of me and that was precisely, I realized, what I wanted to be doing,” he says.
As he finished his B.S. and M.S. in Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology at UAlbany, he was further influenced by the experiential teachings of nationally renowned faculty members Bernard Vonnegut and Vince Shaeffer. “They led the field in so many ways,” Samson says, even taking students all the way to Yellowstone National Park to perform experiments in the unique conditions there. “With that kind of thinking around the building, it was very stimulating.”
Samson went on to earn his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and joined the faculty at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 1979. But he hung on to the lessons of his early mentors. Wanting to show his students up-to-the-moment weather data in a meteorology course, he used pre-internet applications to tap into the National Weather Service and was eventually able to display live, interactive weather maps in class, drawing crowds each semester. The technology evolved and Samson became co-founder of Weather Underground, a popular forecasting website and mobile app.
Samson is officially retired from teaching but continues to put himself at the forefront of emerging technology. Based on the science of help-seeking, his current project is LearningClues, which uses generative A.I. to index course material and generate personalized study guides for students.
From glacial expeditions to interactive classroom tools, Samson engages students deeply with their learning, setting them up to go out and find the answers that science can offer us. Earlier this year, he received the prestigious honor of being elected a fellow of the American Meteorological Society for outstanding contributions to his field.
Reflecting on his lifetime of accomplishments, Samson, an avid hiker, offers some advice he gives to students about persevering through struggle. “Sometimes the trail is too long and too hard and you’re ready to give up. But like hiking, you just keep your feet moving. There's a reason you came, a good reason probably. And you don't yet know where you're going, but you know that this is the path.”