Webster's defines it as "a prophecy or an estimate of a future happening." Now this fall, Montgomery College is offering a three-credit course from the political science department in "forecasting."

No, no, not the weather. A key part of the students' course work will be watching a 17-member volunteer advisory group to the Montgomery County Council, The Commission on the Future of Montgomery County. The panel will study what kind of county residents would like to be living in 30 years from now.

The panel members will be guided by a professional "futurist," who said his profession does not have an exact definition for futurism.

Graham T.T. Molitor, president of Public Policy Forecasting Inc., who is chairman of the commission and lecturer for the college course, said futurists are like demographers, but "futurism is more holistic; it integrates more issues."

"Demographics are only one dimension of a many-dimensional mosaic," he added. "We are trying to create a vision."

Council member William E. Hanna Jr. sponsored the idea for the commission last fall. The study, which is expected to last about 18 months, will include such issues as whether day care should be left to government or to private groups, and whether to preserve county lands or to "keep developing until Montgomery County is nothing but a sea of houses," according to Hanna.

"We are attempting to define what the future will be in 2020," Hanna said. Why 2020? "It seems like we need good vision, so that's the year I picked."

The students not only will learn about forecasting, but also will contribute ideas to the panel.

Max Schaible, director of college relations, said he is enthusiastic about the program because he said it will "groom people for public service who might not otherwise be interested in the future."