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October 28, 2005
Robert M. Panoff marches to his own drummer and makes no excuses about it. He proudly relishes pushing his educational agenda. He's been doing so for the cause of computational science and mathematics for years now, long before it became even mildly fashionable to do so.
While some of his peers choose to focus on scoring sizable grants and funding to pad their personal agendas and resumes, Panoff and his Shodor Education Foundation Inc., where he is president and executive director, stress the importance and improvements of a math- and science-based education with the help of computing and communications technology.
"Math and science are pathologically co-dependent," he said from his office in Durham, N.C. "Look at the benefits of parallel computing. Nature itself is parallel. Look at electrons; they interact all the time and certainly don't neatly line up."
An accomplished scientist in his own right, while he keeps his own research efforts in motion, the majority of Panoff's efforts are focused on educating the next generation.
"Bob has an undying passion for education," said Robert R. Gotwals, a computational science educator at Shodor. "There are no words to express this strongly enough. He is a hero to science and education."
While Panoff is blunt about his highly principled approach, one that sets the bar exasperatedly high, he knows this demeanor brings out the best -- and most -- in his colleagues.
The apple did not fall far from the parental tree. Panoff is the son of physicist parents who worked for Admiral Hyman Rickhover, the highly demanding and larger-than-life father of U.S. Navy's nuclear submarines. So it's not hard to see why Panoff inherited the disciplined approach of a man on a mission.
His passion sometimes is a double-edged sword. "Bob doesn't understand why all people can't share and work well together," said Gotwals. "He has no tolerance for the not invented here' syndrome."
According to Panoff, a computational science education requires a lifelong attentiveness to detail and working with others. No one can assume there's a "good enough" answer, he added. For example, Panoff throws out this seemingly simple question: "What is the boiling point of radium?" Even just limiting a search to Google reveals eight to 10 different "correct" answers. Some of the numbers are not within a factor of two of each other, he added.
"With the Google-ization' of information, we have all this data at our fingertips," he said. "But there's one problem: how can you tell if the data is any good? How do you get a sense of what is right?"
The predicament is even steeper when trying to scale uncharted heights. "When you get the answer to something that has never been known before, how do you know it's right?" Panoff asked. "How do you know if some processors are misbehaving when you're running a calculation?"
While he strongly believes computation can play a role in all learning, he does not judge computers solely on speed. "Debates over the fastest machines are very far away from science at the desktop," he said. He's more interested in figuring out which machine is best to solve all the interesting science calculations that must be done. "There are in-the-lab calculations," he said. "Then there are real world' calculations - that's where we work."
After being director of education at NCSA, Panoff started at Shodor in 1994 to integrate HPC into undergraduate curriculum. While he admits being repeatedly frustrated by various university paper-pushers, nevertheless he continues to make progress dispelling the too-frequent facility notion that good is only done for a university by bringing in money from grants.
Instead, Shodor proves its worth by providing learning materials for students of all ages -- "from the high chair to the rocking chair," Panoff said. The vision is to teach students not just how to play with computers, but how to develop the skills of computational science to learn and work. "Students need to learn how to develop data from computers, not just graphics," he added.
The evidence this approach is working is when students are excited about math and science because the curriculum is interactive and doesn't just require them to sit quietly and listen to canned, graphics-laden presentations. "We must get beyond PowerPoint-less-ness," he said. Instead of presentations, learning should be interactive and investigative. "If you don't know the answer, run it through [the computer] and run it several times," he said. "It's not about quick-time videos with automated answers. It's never too early -- or too late -- to start."
Shodor strives to build interactivity into courses that change the dynamics of communication. "We need to require more than listening, provide more stimulation," Panoff explained. "Enthusiasm affects the intellect in powerful ways."
While Panoff wants Shodor's efforts to be visibly "out there," he said he's typically happy running under the radar. For example,all five of his programs were NSF funded and the organization continues to rely on his wisdom to pinpoint others' worthy programs and projects.
"Bob has always said that Shodor would go away if everyone else was doing their business," Gotwals said. Case in point: One of Shodor's unwavering goals is to teach interested parties how to do what it is does. This "franchising philosophy" can provide fast-scaling results, Panoff said. The goal remains getting computational science into all of the nation's science programs.
"Such programs must prepare for long-term viability," Panoff said. "What would happen if NSF funding were to stop? There is no guarantee the NSF will be here four or five years from now. Cuts in educational funding, especially within the NSF, are horrendous. We must develop programs now and get them embedded in schools' course work."
If this does not happen, instead of the fabled "leave no child behind," Panoff said the reality would be "no child is allowed to get ahead."
The HPC community must find ways to get industry leaders such as Cray Inc., IBM and Linux Networxs Inc. to invest in students -- because after all, some of these students may one day want to work for these companies.
"People worry about big machines without wondering who is running them and what they are doing with them," Panoff said. "Shodor is not just educators, but computational people too. All are pushing toward an efficient, authentic computing experience."
Shodor's Succeed workshops help students gain "excitement, experience and expertise" in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Working in a hands-on group environment, students become immersed in subjects such as forensic or environmental science by exploring applications of scientific computer models and visualizations to solve real-world problems.
"I'm a quantum physicist, I can compute," said Panoff. "It's just that I choose to work on generational, not machine, issues."
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