Student Success from ‘Scratch’: CHPC’s Proof is in the Pudding

By Elizabeth Leake

August 7, 2020

Happy Sithole, who directs the South African Centre for High Performance Computing (SA-CHPC), called the 13th annual CHPC National conference to order on December 1, 2019, at the Birchwood Conference Centre in Kempton Park, Johannesburg. One of the last in-person events the global HPC community attended before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, this conference drew 667 attendees who left the event with new cybersecurity defense strategies and a better understanding of how to prepare the workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

CHPC Director Happy Sithole

The median age in pan-Africa is 19.7 years; less than half of what it is in the U.S. and Europe. This is why Dr. Sithole is committed to engaging younger scholars at this conference each year. While a vibrant university student program has always been a focal point, forty 10th and 11th grade students who are enrolled in math and science programs attended CHPC’19 opening keynotes.

Twenty eleventh graders learned coding basics with Scratch, a block-based and object-oriented visual programming language for children. They learned how to create interactive animations and educational games while getting a crash-course on how computers operate, in general. They also heard talks where they were introduced to cyber risk and mitigation strategies; an experience designed to ignite an early interest in cybersecurity academics and careers.

Ten teams competed in the national CHPC Student Cluster Competition (SCC); a dozen teams honed their forensic skills in the third annual Cyber Security Challenge; and nine teams vied for first place in a student Datathon. Undergraduate students were invited to attend a special session on fraud detection, and a scientific poster competition represented content from just about every computationally-intensive research domain.

Intel sponsored two cash awards, each worth 50,000 rand ($3,153.00US) for the best female and male scholars who, according to Sithole, “articulated their positions well,” in a competitive essay contest.

CHPC’s David Macleod presented to the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) HPC Forum on his experience managing the student cluster competition (SCC) program. Additional SADC HPC Forum highlights will be covered in part three of this series.

Since they can learn from South Africa’s experience with cyberinfrastructure, is important for SADC delegates from 16 member-states to understand CHPC’s formula for student success; it’s a recipe Dr. Sithole has perfected since 2007. The SA-SCC team has placed among the top three every year at the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) SCC since first competing in Frankfurt, Germany in 2013; they have won four gold, three silver and one bronze. SA student teams also won first prize at the BRICS18 Cyber Security challenge, and BRICS19 Future Skills Challenge and Expo. BRICS is a diplomatic alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China, and SA.

ISC-SCC training begins each July when the CHPC hosts a week-long, intensive bootcamp for 80 students from universities across the country. They apply in teams of four and when they arrive, they are assembled into groups of 20.

ACE Team Coaches Macleod (far left) and Matthew Cawood (far right) with six delegates from the ISC20 SCC team, and two reserves.

Unlike many ISC teams that have the opportunity to participate in multiple events each year, and the ISC-SCC several times in a student career, South Africa begins with a fresh batch of team members each year. “None have participated in the ISC event twice,” said Macleod.

From the student perspective, the process requires one year. But from the administrative standpoint, it takes 1.5 years to manage, and it is not an inexpensive undertaking.

“It costs about 9 million rand, or $513,657.58 to get started if you attempt to form a team on your own,” said Macleod, who recommended that would-be teams form alliances with government and industry partners. The budget was delineated as follows:

  • 500,000 rand for July training at the university (80 participants plus training personnel).
  • 250,000 rand for the second-round in Cape Town.
  • 1,752,140 rand ($100,000) for equipment; loaned by Dell each year. Students are provided with a parts list from which to specify their cluster design.
  • 400,000 rand for international travel (350,000 rand for students, and 50,000 rand for staff).
  • Retail value for ISC hardware is 6,000,000 rand (OEM value of the loan in 2019 was ~$200,000).

And then there is the sweat equity. Each ISC20-SCC competitive team was required to master five applications and one coding challenge. They also had to answer interview questions with a dozen judges—communication and presentation skills are also important. One ISC20-SCC team had produced 130 modifications of a single application. Given the amount of time and energy it requires to excel, some may need to seek university support for time off (makeup or deferred exams if they fall during a critical time in the schedule, for example). Winning teams have support from industry partners, their government, schools, and families. When the ISC-SCC judging team met to reflect on the 2020 cohort and why some performed better than others, most agreed that that this competition isn’t something teams can excel at if they don’t take it seriously; they must train as though they are competing in the Olympics!

“Anyone hoping to win at ISC must have the best hardware; so far, few have,” said Macleod. But South Africa is fortunate to be among teams with supportive sponsors, and the same applies to Tsinghua University of China and Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. These three teams are typically head-and-shoulders above the pack, with Tsinghua and South Africa running neck-and-neck. In a 2020 upset, South Africa ranked second to a team from the Chinese University of Science and Technology; Tsinghua University of China placed third.

But if forced to cut corners, Macleod said that South Africa would sacrifice winning. “Our primary goal is to expose as many students to the experience as possible.”

Photo by Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

There are too many great things happening in SA to cover in one feature. Find the first and third installations (coming soon) of this three-part series in HPCwire.  The third will include full details about the CHPC20 National Conference; stay tuned! For a deeper dive into the ISC SCC program, visit the two-part Top500 series titled, “The Anatomy of Winning Teams,” also by Elizabeth Leake.

Thank you sponsors; stay tuned!  

The CHPC National Conference and its organizers, speakers and delegates wish to thank the generous sponsors who made this year’s event possible: Diamond Sponsor Intel, and others, including Altair, Dell/EMC, Boston Storage, AMD, HP, Schrodinger, and Mellanox. In his opening remarks, Dr. Sithole also thanked CHPC conference planners: Dr. Werner Janse van Rensburg, Kevin Colville, Lesley Fredericks, Noxolo Moyake, Meshack Ndala, and others.

Photos by Lawrette McFarlane unless credited otherwise.

About the Author

HPCwire Contributing Editor Elizabeth Leake is a consultant, correspondent and advocate who serves the global high performance computing (HPC) and data science industries. In 2012, she founded STEM-Trek, a global, grassroots nonprofit organization that supports workforce development opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars from underserved regions and underrepresented groups.

As a program director, Leake has mentored hundreds of early-career professionals who are breaking cultural barriers in an effort to accelerate scientific and engineering discoveries. Her multinational programs have specific themes that resonate with global stakeholders, such as food security data science, blockchain for social good, cybersecurity/risk mitigation, and more. As a conference blogger and communicator, her work drew recognition when STEM-Trek received the 2016 and 2017 HPCwire Editors’ Choice Awards for Workforce Diversity Leadership.

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