Broad-based program emphasizes social issues to attract a diverse pool of students to computing sciences.

By Kathy Kincade, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Energy justice and workforce development were the driving themes of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) first “Introduction to High-Performance Computing (HPC) Bootcamp,” held at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) August 7-11 and hosted by the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), in collaboration with the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF), the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, and the Sustainable Horizons Institute (SHI). The event was funded by the DOE’s Exascale Computing Project (ECP).

This immersive program took a novel approach to HPC training by turning the traditional curriculum upside down. Instead of focusing just on technology and its applications, the bootcamp engaged students in energy justice projects so they learned how to use HPC to answer compelling social impact questions. “Our framework emphasizes social good using project-based pedagogy and real-life science stories to prepare students for internships and future careers at DOE and the national labs,” said SHI Director Mary Ann Leung.

The event was inspired by the DOE Office of Economic Impact and Diversity (ED) and their work implementing the Justice40 Initiative, whose goal is to ensure that at least 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution, noted Dr. Anjuli Jain Figueroa, chief of the Office of Energy Justice Analysis Division within the DOE’s ED. “We need democratic participation to ensure our energy systems work for everyone,” she said during her keynote address at the bootcamp.

Some 60 students – many with little to no background in HPC – and 10 peer mentors from schools across the U.S. participated in the five-day instructional event, which also included a tour of the NERSC facility and the Perlmutter supercomputer. Participants received hands-on experience working with state-of-the-art computational and data science tools and techniques to explore issues related to the social impact of modern-day energy challenges, such as climate risk, solar power, sustainable cities, and energy usage.

“Attendees found their time at Berkeley Lab extremely worthwhile, both for the insights into the power of HPC and for the insights you derive into the linked social and technological challenges of the Justice40 Initiative – issues like climate change and renewable energy,” said Jonathan Carter, Associate Laboratory Director for Computing Sciences at Berkeley Lab. “The solutions we design and implement must have a more equitable impact across society than the rewards of previous scientific endeavors.”

“The level of student engagement was especially gratifying to see, as we envision the bootcamp participants in our future workforce,” said Sreeranjani “Jini” Ramprakash, Deputy Director of the ALCF and lead initiator of the Introduction to HPC thrust of ECP’s Broadening Participation Initiative, which was established in 2022 to build a more diverse workforce in computing sciences and foster an inclusive professional environment and culture throughout the DOE national lab community.

Diversifying Participation in HPC

The bootcamp approach is one of three programs within the Broadening Participation Initiative. The DOE has long recognized that recruiting and retaining HPC employees from a variety of cultures and backgrounds is a challenge that must be addressed for the national labs to successfully execute their missions and expand their workforce, noted Lois Curfman McInnes, lead organizer of the ECP Broadening Participation Initiative and a senior computational scientist in the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory. Representatives from the ECP’s Task Force on Broadening Participation began meeting in 2021 to exchange information and develop an overarching plan to attract underrepresented groups in STEM and HPC.

“Events like this, with a joint social justice and computing focus, broaden our workforce by introducing HPC to a more diverse range of students, many of whom may be majoring in non-computing fields,” said Suzanne Parete-Koon, HPC engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who led a panel discussion on how HPC advances scientific discovery. “These efforts ultimately expand the types of problems we could solve using HPC.”

In addition to plenary presentations and panel discussions, the bootcamp at Berkeley Lab featured hands-on breakout sessions that enabled participants to address specific challenges in energy justice and learn how HPC can be used in this process, such as working with geographic information systems to enhance data-driven analysis and decision making on a regional basis.

“The students worked together in groups on one of seven projects, supported by their peer mentor and project leads,” said Paige Kinsley, education outreach lead at Argonne and one of the bootcamp organizers. For example, students who participated in Project 7 (understanding the relationships of power outages and the socioeconomics of a specific region) used the Perlmutter system to learn about the data analysis tools needed to look at trends in one region of the U.S. They then applied those tools more broadly, expanding the focus of their data analysis beyond one region to multiple states and layered other variables such as demographic information to better understand who was impacted.

“I’m happy that NERSC was able to host this event at Berkeley Lab,” said Rebecca Hartman-Baker, one of the organizers and lead of NERSC’s User Engagement Group. “It was a great opportunity for us because NERSC and Berkeley Lab are committed to energy justice, expanding the reach of HPC to new communities, and developing a diverse workforce.”

The collaboration between Berkeley, Argonne, and Oak Ridge was made possible by a major effort involving multiple staff from each facility, noted Helen He, NERSC training lead, who was among those instrumental in organizing the on-site and technical logistics. “We appreciated all the support, from the core team working on activities, presentations, and projects to upper lab management and staff welcoming and sharing their own HPC career paths, to others contributing to machine room tours, panels, social programs, Perlmutter support, and more.”

OLCF Goes to Camp

A small team from the OLCF contributed Python-based tutorials and projects designed to introduce students to important HPC tools and topics. In keeping with the event’s energy justice focus, students used ORNL’s EAGLE-I power outage data set to work on projects about socioeconomics, power outages, and medically vulnerable populations. The material was developed and led by HPC engineers Suzanne Parete-Koon, Subil Abraham, Kellen Leland, and Michael Sandoval, as well as Glady Chen, a Sustainable Research Pathways Program summer research intern at ORNL working with Parete-Koon.

Leland also developed and led ‘Intro to Scientific Computing and Data Visualization,’ a tutorial that introduced students to basic Python concepts and tools, such as NumPy, pandas, and Matplotlib libraries.

“I was really amazed by the students at the bootcamp,” Leland said. “They were an extremely motivated and cohesive group. They formed bonds with their teammates, peer mentors, and trainers and produced interesting analyses and insights in their energy justice-focused projects in a very short amount of time.”

In addition to her work for the bootcamp, Parete-Koon was recognized as the 2023 Mentor MVP by the ORNL Office of Research Education at ORNL. She was nominated for the honor by Chen, who presented the award during the bootcamp in recognition of Parete-Koon’s mentorship and professional support. Parete-Koon has long been involved in education and development efforts at ORNL, where she regularly leads sessions of an introductory HPC Crash Course for interns and staff.

Suzanne Parete-Koon, right, was recognized as the ORNL Office of Research Education 2023 Mentor MVP during the Intro to HPC Bootcamp. The award was presented by Gladys Chen, middle, who worked with Parete-Koon this summer as an intern in the Sustainable Research Pathways Program.

Betsy Sonewald

Looking ahead, the organizers are working to refine this model and expand its reach through other modalities, such as academic curricula and online learning, especially engaging students from underrepresented communities and beyond. “Through events like this, students address some of the energy grand challenges facing their generation while learning HPC methods,” said Ramprakash. “During the bootcamp, their questions demonstrated keen interest in the work performed at DOE national labs and a new awareness of the long-term research careers that DOE advanced computing facilities make possible.”

A post-event survey reflects this. The survey was distributed electronically to 60 participants at the conclusion of the bootcamp, and 54 responded. The survey included both qualitative and quantitative items related to participants’ satisfaction with the bootcamp, as well as the perceived impact on their technical skills, understanding of energy justice, and future research or career attainment. Preliminary feedback indicates that by focusing on project-based HPC for energy justice topics, the bootcamp captured the interest of a wide range of students from underrepresented groups, exposing them to the power of applying HPC to challenges in science and society. Participants also indicated interest in pursuing a career in HPC or energy justice, as well as at a DOE lab.

“Our whole reason for pioneering this innovative approach is to create easy on-ramps to DOE labs through HPC training, internships, and, ultimately, careers, with a long-term goal of diversifying and strengthening our workforce,” added McInnes.

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