A BoF to Boost Your Supercomputing Outreach Skills

By Tiffany Trader

November 9, 2016

In this Q&A, University of Edinburgh researcher Nick Brown previews an upcoming SC16 BoF, titled “HPC Outreach: Promoting Supercomputing to the Next Generation.” The BoF, organized by Brown and two of his colleagues, focuses not only on outreach to different groups of people, but also some of the questions around diversity and ways to best design activities that are inclusive to all.

HPCwire: Please share a bit about your background and research efforts?

Nick Brown: I am from EPCC at the University of Edinburgh and work developing HPC codes (I am currently developing an atmospheric LES code for modelling clouds over large numbers of cores) with research interests in parallel programming languages, compilers and runtimes (working on the INTERTWinE project which looks at programming model interoperability).

Nick Brown
Nick Brown

There are two others involved in organising this BoF, Scott Callaghan is from the Southern California Earthquake Center and develops, optimizes, and scales up large earth science applications — probabilistic seismic hazard analysis, in particular — with research interests in scientific workflows. Lorna Rivera is a senior research specialist at CEISMC, Georgia Institute of Technology, and her research interests focus on the evaluation of innovative programs and their sustainability, and health education and promotion programs.

HPCwire: You’re holding a BoF at SC16 – HPC Outreach: Promoting Supercomputing to the Next Generation. What is your goal with this BoF?

Brown: Yes, this is on the Wednesday (Nov. 16th) from 5:15 to 7pm in room 250-E and we think it is important because outreach is one of those things often done as a “best efforts” activity, over and above the day job. As such it can be really difficult to know where to start and how well you are doing. We are aiming to bring together both people who are doing outreach and those who would like to do outreach to share ideas and experiences. Irrespective of how much outreach you do I think there is lots we can learn from each other and help those who are less experienced. Some centres provide time and support to develop outreach activities and demos, and it would be good to share these and make them available to others for incorporation in their own efforts.

Brown: Who should attend and what can attendees expect?

HPCwire: Anyone with an interest in outreach and public engagement; you don’t need to have any prior experience in doing outreach before — and indeed it is our hope that this BoF will help and encourage people to start doing outreach. The session will be a mixture of discussions and interacting with existing demos. We have three general topics for discussion — outreach targeted at school kids (K-12), outreach targeted at university students and the general public and ensuring your outreach reaches a diverse audience. This diversity discussion point I think is really interesting as there is, quite rightly, a large push to improve diversity in the HPC community and one major way of doing this is for people from diverse backgrounds to feel welcome in the community and for HPC to appeal to them. So how we “do outreach” and design our activities to ensure that they have a positive (rather than negative) message around this.

We have multiple demos that will be set up and towards the end of the BoF there will be an opportunity for people to go round these, play with the demos, chat to the people who are running them and explore how they could use/modify them for their own efforts.

HPCwire: What is your vision for outreach and public engagement and what does a successful effort look like?

Brown: I think currently there are efforts going on around the world, but these can be disjointed and/or disconnected between different centres and/or countries. Moving forward it would be great to unify this, so we have more of a coordinated worldwide effort and developments done by one group could easily be shared by others. I think making outreach more of a “first class” criteria, where research activities are more commonly expected to include outreach would also be very helpful and there is some move towards this but progress is quite slow.

HPCwire: If people want to get involved in fostering greater engagement in HPC, what steps do you suggest they take?

Brown: Firstly come along to the BoF! But in all seriousness it has surprised me how appreciative people are of the outreach you do with them. I suggest first speaking to people in your institution and see what existing efforts are being done and how HPC might form a part of this. Also whilst it might seem a bit daunting initially, contacting local schools and/or events is often worthwhile, very much appreciated by those involved and it can provoke some really interesting conversations. Certainly I know of a few students who have been to one of our local outreach events, been enthused about HPC and then signed up to our MSc in HPC. The challenge is also what activities to do, and hence one of the aims of this BoF to share efforts so people can re-use existing material.

HPCwire: I understand you have some games you are demoing during your BOF, including a mini-supercomputer made out of Raspberry Pi boards and a “build a supercomputer” online web game. Can you tell us more? What do the games teach and how have they facilitated your outreach efforts?

Brown: In general I think demos and gamification are a really powerful way of engaging the public in our field. We have found you need something “cool” to grab the public’s attention hence “dinosaur racing on Wee Archie, our mini supercomputer” or “design your own supercomputer”. This grabs their attention and some competition (such as a leader board or race) keeps them interested and if done correctly they get a sense of achievement and progress.

Whilst interacting with the demo they are taking on board the messages we have designed in and are looking to get across – such with the dinosaur racing demo that parallel simulation is used where experimentation is very difficult or prohibitive, and the design a supercomputer game gets across the hardware side (such as what are the constituent parts of a computer and how these relate) as well as the sort of jobs we run on modern HPC machines.

Wee ArchieIt is useful to design demos to work on many levels – for instance the dinosaurs of the dinosaur racing appeals to the kids, whereas older audiences (or their parents) will often take a different angle and appreciate the hardware of Wee Archie a bit more and be able to draw parallels from simulating dinosaurs to simulation that applies to their own lives (such as the weather, wind flow over cars etc.) It is important to say that you don’t need complex and/or advanced demos to be successful here. Some of the simpler demos such as ball sorting are really effective, great fun and hugely popular with the public.

HPCwire: What are you looking forward to most about SC16? What is on your essential SC list of things to do/see?

Brown: SC is a really fantastic conference, and it seems like there are always more things to do and see than there is time to do them! In addition to the technical program, which is always excellent, I always look forward to connecting with my far-flung colleagues. I have some collaborators I’ve been working with for months and SC16 will be the first time I’ll meet them in person.

First priority should, of course, be the Outreach BoF, at 5:15 pm on Wednesday 😉 Another event I’m looking forward to is a talk Wednesday at 3:30, “Bias: From Overt to Unconscious and What Research Suggests Can Be Done.” In outreach, you may be the first contact with the HPC community that an individual has had, and being able to manage your own biases can really help in making meaningful connections and shaping a positive view of HPC.

For more information about these demos and the BoF in general visit http://bit.ly/2fzpjIW.

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