October 26, 2010

SC10 Champions HPC Education and Workforce Development

by Linda Barney

There is a great need for workforce development to attract students into science, math and computing worldwide, at the same time that research shows that the number of students pursuing studies in these domains is declining and student performance needs to improve. The supercomputing community is not immune to these shortages.

Dan Reed, now with Microsoft Research and a member of the SC Steering Committee, told representatives of the US Congress at a hearing in 2008 that “information technology is a universal intellectual amplifier” while arguing for the need for greater Congressional support for US investments in IT.

This is certainly still true today. Reed’s statement carries with it the idea that investments of money, people, and intellectual effort into IT and computing solutions have a force multiplier that other activities do not share: $100M invested into a telescope has an immediate impact on our understanding of the universe, but won’t likely impact our understanding of how to build more effective bridges or prevent the spread of disease. On the other hand a $100M investment in computing — and especially in computing hardware — can have a much broader impact. There are hundreds of computing centers around the world that host significant supercomputing resources and expertise that are used by a diverse community of users working in fields as diverse as environmental restoration, applied mathematics, and linguistics.

The broad leverage of supercomputing resources across so many scientific and technical disciplines is a powerful argument in favor of HPC. Perhaps more compelling, however, is the fact that researchers study phenomena using software on supercomputers that are too dangerous, too expensive, or simply impossible to do any other way. If you are trying to build new materials atom-by-atom, or need to study the environmental effects of a nuclear reactor leak, you simply don’t have other options.

2010 marks the second year of SC Communities, the body that synthesizes the programs contributing to the vibrancy and diversity of the global supercomputing community. “SC conference organizers have long understood the unique advantages that supercomputing offers humanity,” explains Boston University’s Jennifer Teig von Hoffman, SC10 Communities chair. “They also recognize that it is ultimately not about the hardware alone. We need people to enable the hardware to make a difference. Developing the next generation of HPC talent is the focus of the collection of programs organized as SC10 Communities.”

There is a great need for workforce development to attract students into science, math and computing worldwide, at the same time that research shows that the number of students pursuing studies in these domains is declining and student performance needs to improve. The supercomputing community is not immune to these shortages. As pointed out in a recent IDC study, there is a “growing worldwide shortage of HPC talent, due to an aging HPC workforce and a scarcity of new graduates in various HPC fields.”

Companies, national labs, and universities are affected by workforce shortages, but they are also in a strategic position to address this problem through science education and the special emphasis on workforce development at this year’s Supercomputing Conference in New Orleans.

SC Conference leaders are committed to innovative mechanisms for broadening participation within high-performance computing and the computational sciences. The Student Volunteers Program provides introduction and experience in the SC Conference. Student Volunteers are comprised of local, international, graduate and undergraduate students in a variety of disciplines (including Computer Science, Information Sciences, Applied Mathematics and IT), for whom the conference is an important opportunity to interact with leading researchers in technical fields.

To further encourage discussion of critical issues, a set of panels and papers at SC10 will explore issues and solutions in HPC workforce development, focusing on identifying and exploring specific skills and capabilities needed in the HPC workforce. The conference will also cover new and existing approaches to increase the skilled workforce, as well as the trends and forces shaping HPC workforce needs, education and training approaches over the next 5 and 10 years.

Because it is so broadly applicable, supercomputing in particular benefits from the broadest possible set of points of view and backgrounds among its practitioners. This means providing opportunities and support to emerging leaders and groups who historically have not had a strong presence in HPC. These include women, students and early-career professionals from under-represented groups and international attendees.

The Broader Engagement Program provides competitive grants to support travel to and participation in the SC10 Technical Program by members of under-represented groups. Participants go on to provide leadership in SC Committees and show excellence in SC technical sessions, such as SC posters and the Doctoral Showcase.

As part of the Broader Engagement Program, the SC10 Student Job Fair will be held during the conference. At the SC09 Fair, over 100 students met representatives from government and private industry, research labs, academic institutions and recruiting agencies to discuss research and employment opportunities, co-ops and internships.

Shannon Steinfadt is a recently hired engineer who attended SC08 with help from the Broader Engagement Program. In talking about the program’s impact on her career she says, “The cooperative environment, social events, mentorship and tours of the exhibitor hall were so helpful in boosting my confidence. The program enabled me to really participate, and not just observe what could have been an overwhelming experience. I felt that I was taken care of by the Broader Engagement Program.” Shannon also found the 2008 Job Fair valuable. She was contacted by four national laboratories based on the resume she distributed at the Job Fair, and is now part of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The future of our planet, and the quality of life for all life living on it, may well depend upon how well we address the challenges we face today. Short-term efforts and special projects can win individual battles, but in order to win the war we must capture the world’s best and brightest minds for science, engineering, and computing.

The Education Program introduces supercomputing and computational tools, resources, and methods to K-12 educators, and helps them to integrate computational techniques into the classroom. During SC10, the Education Program will host a four-day intensive program that immerses participants in high-performance computing, networking, storage and analysis. The program offers mentorship, focused hands-on tutorials, formal and informal opportunities to interact with other SC communities and exhibitors.

Although engaging K-12 students is critical to the continued long-term health of the global science community, the immense opportunities to capture students further along in their studies must not be ignored.

The Student Cluster Competition is a joint effort between the SC10 Technical Program and SC10 Communities. Teams consisting of six undergraduate students showcase the amazing power of clusters and the ability to utilize open source software to solve interesting and important problems. They compete in real-time on the exhibit floor to run a workload of real-world applications on clusters of their own. According to Hai Ah Nam, SC10 Technical Program Student Cluster Competition Co-Chair and an alumnus of the SC Broader Engagement program, “Student Cluster Competition teams come from Taiwan, Russia and the United States with team sponsors such as AMD, Atlantic Computing, Cray, Dell, HP, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Mellanox, and Microsoft.”

Prior to the competition, teams work with their advisor and vendor partners to design and build a cutting-edge commercially available small cluster. Teams must also learn open source competition applications and are encouraged to enlist the help of domain specialists.

Doug Smith, advisor for the team at the University of Colorado Boulder, has used the SC Student Cluster Competition to build the undergraduate curriculum at his institute for HPC courses. “Our team is a very grass-roots effort,” he explains. “We take students from any major regardless of past experience. The majority of our students come from computer science or one of the other engineering disciplines. However, we have had some past students from applied math, physics and astronomy. We will have a team of six undergrads at the SC10 competition. We are being sponsored by the University of Colorado, Lockheed Martin and the HP Advisory Council and our hardware will be based on Dell/AMD/Mellanox. I think of the Student Cluster Competition as the Formula 1 race of the computer industry.”

The SC conference series has a long history of fostering HPC/science education and workforce development. National labs and large research centers with significant interests in education, outreach and training have collaborated with SC Communities, spearheading special projects and programs to foster the development of its leaders and participants.

“The global computing community’s continued success in applying supercomputing to the great challenges of our time depends in good measure on bringing new people and ideas into the HPC fold; there is no better place to make that happen than SC10,” says Teig von Hoffman. “HPC and advanced networking have become a critical component of a growing worldwide cyber infrastructure and it is important for that same global diversity to be reflected in the HPC community.”

About the Author

Linda Barney owns Barney and Associates, a technical, marketing writing and Web firm in Beaverton, Oregon, that provides writing and Web content for the high tech, government, medical and scientific communities. Readers can reach her at linda@barneyassoc.com.

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