People - Written by on July 18, 2017

OLCF Staff Reach Students through Coding Events

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Daughters of ORNL staff members display their fractals on the visualization wall in the Exploratory Visualization Environment for Research in Science and Technology, or EVEREST. Pictured here are the girls with staff volunteers (front row, left to right) Ashley Nguyen, Dasha Herrmannova, Megan Bradley, Katherine Engstrom, Kate Carter, Anne Berres, Katie Schuman, Suzanne Parete-Koon, Rachel Harken, and Amy Coen.

Staff members participate in CodeStock Academy and ORNL’s Introduce Your Daughter to Code

The Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF), a US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), recently participated in two coding events that aimed to introduce middle and high school students to computing and coding concepts through fun, engaging activities.

For the first time, OLCF staff members presented at CodeStock Academy, a branch of the CodeStock technology conference for developers and IT professionals May 5–6 in Knoxville, Tennessee. The OLCF hosted another event on June 16 called “Introduce Your Daughter to Code,” led by staff members in the networking group Women in Computing (WiC) at ORNL.

Tiny Titan—a small version of the OLCF’s flagship supercomputer, Titan, that features eight Raspberry Pi processors—was displayed at both events. Tiny Titan provides a visual simulation of a liquid in space, demonstrating how additional nodes in a compute system can increase the speed of a simulation.

CodeStock Academy

Students work together to tally the numbers of darts on circular dartboards at CodeStock Academy. By dividing the work, they learned how programmers decide how to distribute tasks on Titan’s hardware.

A yearly event that provides an all-day coding camp for high school students, CodeStock Academy categorizes students by age and skill level into instructional sessions in the morning before they attend a hands-on session that introduces them to computing concepts and virtual reality. Thanks to OLCF User Support Specialist Suzanne Parete-Koon, this year’s agenda included a new concept: parallel computing.

The session started with a brief introduction to parallel computing concepts, led by Rachel Harken, OLCF science writing intern. Harken explained how the OLCF’s Cray XK7 Titan supercomputer completes up to 27 quadrillion calculations per second, noting its applications in dark matter, medicine, and nanomaterials projects.

After the introduction, Parete-Koon led the students in a “human supercomputer” activity, during which students were placed into a large GPU group or a small CPU group before racing to complete a task. The activity was based on the Monte Carlo method, which uses random sampling to find solutions to problems. Parete-Koon explained the advantages and disadvantages of each type of processor—the GPUs have more “workers” but must organize their group efficiently, whereas CPUs have fewer workers but also less organizational effort.

“We had the groups estimate the value of pi by counting the number of randomly aimed darts it took to fill a circular dartboard and then equating that number with the dartboard’s area,” Parete-Koon said. “The kids had to decide how to divide the work of counting and summing up the darts just like programmers decide how to distribute tasks on Titan’s hardware. Trying to understand which tasks to place on the CPU and GPU and how to organize them is a major part of programming.”

Parete-Koon also showed off Tiny Titan, letting the students take turns playing with the virtual water. Each node adds varying colors and increases the speed of the simulation; extra controls allow students to change the surface tension and gravity of the liquid to show the processing power of the machine.

“Tiny Titan illustrates how a supercomputer makes light work of a problem by using many workers,” Parete-Koon said. “Because kids can easily recognize the water sloshing around on the screen, it serves to demonstrate how computer simulations can accurately mimic nature. Supercomputer simulations can give us insight about nature that is hard to reproduce in earthbound labs.”

Parete-Koon said she hopes the OLCF will participate in CodeStock Academy next year to continue providing Knoxville students with fun, interactive opportunities to explore supercomputing.

Introduce Your Daughter to Code

OLCF also hosted WiC’s “Introduce Your Daughter to Code” for the second time after its initial success last summer. The event introduces ORNL staff members’ daughters in middle and high school to the computational sciences with programming activities that center around running code on the OLCF’s flagship supercomputer, Titan. This year, 25 girls ages 10 to 18 participated in the labwide event.

Parete-Koon kicked off the event with an introduction to parallel computing and Titan, explaining how the massive machine helps scientists “blow up” stars, study cancer cells and blood flow, and build better engines. Dasha Herrmannova, intern in ORNL’s Computational Data Analytics Group, and Anne Berres, ORNL postdoctoral research associate, walked the girls through the basics of coding in Python, a widely used open-source programming language. Using Python, the girls learned how to type in commands, assign variables, create lists of numbers, and use loops—tools that cycle through sets of values to “find” specific values.

Katie Schuman, a Liane Russell Distinguished Early Career Fellow and WiC cochair, helped the girls use fractalName, a program designed by former OLCF intern Susheela Singh that takes input values and generates colored fractals—repeating patterns that form shapes. The girls used their names and ages to make the colorful pictures, which were projected onto the visualization wall in the Exploratory Visualization Environment for Research in Science and Technology, or EVEREST, at the end of the day.

“It was really exciting to see the girls’ enthusiasm and curiosity when they were coding,” Schuman said. “Some of them would say, ‘If I do this, what will happen?’ or ‘I wonder what this will do.’ Seeing them already thinking creatively about the code is the most rewarding thing to me.”

The girls also used a program called Birthday Pi, which Schuman designed, to find their birthday sequences in the first 100,000 digits of the number pi. This exercise demonstrated how loops mine through data and find relevant information using specified customized parameters.

After they coded on the leadership-class machine, the girls explored the interactive Tiny Titan, which provided another visual representation of how processors work together to generate what appears on the screen.

Schuman said that the feedback WiC continues to receive about the event will inform future coding activities. “Some of the parents have already said the girls wanted to download everything and keep playing with the code when they got home,” Schuman said. “There is already a desire for the next phase. We will definitely continue running the same curriculum and possibly expand it in the future.”

The following staff members contributed to “Introduce Your Daughter to Code:” Berres, Harken, Herrmannova, Parete-Koon, Schuman, Megan Bradley, Kate Carter, Amy Coen, Katherine Engstrom, Megan Fielden, Shang Gao, and Ashley Nguyen.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.