Special Annual Awards

2008 Campus Technology Innovators: High-Performance Computing

Innovator: University of Northern Iowa

Two college professors decide that high-performance computing should be accessible not just for research, but for education in general, and they proceed to construct a proponent resource organization to make the dream possible for educators everywhere.

In 2006, Paul Gray, of the University of Northern Iowa, and Charlie Peck, from Earlham College (IN), recognized that if it was hard to get high-performance computing resources for research projects, it was even harder to get them solely for the purposes of education. With Gray taking the lead at UNI, the duo began work on a project that would blossom into the largest-- if not the only-- organization dedicated to bringing HPC technologies into the mainstream of education.

Less than two years later, the two associate professors of computer science have amassed a collection of highperformance computing resources for educators and students, dubbed Edu-Grid, and have garnered support from the Supercomputing Conference, TeraGrid, and Shodor.

Edu-Grid consists of high-performance computing and networking hardware, scientific software and tools, curricular components, reference materials, and what Gray calls Edu- Grid's most significant attribute: people who have the common goal of making HPC resources available specifically for educational purposes. Edu-Grid as an HPC organization puts education first, he maintains; all other organizations are primarily interested in HPC for research purposes.

Today, Edu-Grid resources are used to inform educators through workshops, training, and access that ultimately will result in the application of HPC advances to the delivery of education at the middle- through graduate-school education levels in science, humanities, and the arts. Among Edu-Grid's key computational resources are systems donated by Intel, Earlham College, and the University of Northern Iowa. A significant amount of open source and commercial scientific software packages are also available, ranging from molecular dynamics packages to the TotalView debugging environment.

Edu-Grid will help bring HPC advances to education at the middle- through graduate-school education levels in science, humanities, and the arts.

Gray and Peck conduct HPC workshops for the Supercomputing Conference's Education Program. The weeklong workshops host approximately 180 undergraduate faculty each summer, and focus on curriculum development based upon HPC resources. Topics include "Computational Physics for Physics Educators," "High-Performance Computing for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences," and more.

"The Edu-Grid workshop instructors believe that HPC has a huge potential to change many sciences," Gray reports. "Medical, geographical, and energy sciences are areas that will be looked into in the coming years." Yet with HPC resources often difficult to come by, an obvious question to Gray is: How do you select appropriate resources for Edu- Grid? The professor cites educational benefit and ease of replication as the main differentiating factors that influenced technology choices: "Any technology integrated into Edu-Grid had to have a significant educational benefit to its faculty and student consumers. TotalView is a prime example: It is a comprehensive debugging solution that is robust and easy to use, while dramatically enhancing and simplifying the process of debugging Edu-Grid's advanced HPC applications. Other differentiating factors that drove technology choices included the ability for Edu-Grid users to reproduce technologies on their own resources. If scientific software was difficult to deploy or support, it would be difficult to deploy or support at an educator's home institution."

Gray offers a bit of wisdom for educators committed to HPC for their students, and interested in working with Edu- Grid: Be sure to include students at every level of the initiative. "Students learn an incredible amount by being immersed in the hands-on aspects of the project. Faculty also benefit from student inclusion: It leverages their time and allows them to do things students can't tackle yet."

comments powered by Disqus