Front Range Community College Students Meet the Jetsons and Tour NWSC

By Richard Loft
03/04/2015 - 12:00am

Twenty-five students and faculty from the Front Range Community College (FRCC) Larimer Campus got a taste of what it’s like to pursue a career in high performance scientific computing during a visit to the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center on 13 February 2015. The students arrived in style in a stretch limousine –a touch of class arranged by Professor Victoria Eisele, a member of the Computer Science/Computer Information Systems faculty at FRCC– that was designed to make the field trip memorable for the group. Professor Eisele is collaborating with Dr. Raghu Raj Kumar of CISL’s Application Scalability and Performance (ASAP) Group to encourage students to think big about their career options in Information Technology. 

During their tour the students received a short briefing on NCAR’s mission, the NWSC facility, and the petascale Yellowstone computing complex. The also learned about CISL’s education and outreach efforts in scientific computing based on low-cost clusters composed of Raspberry Pi and NVIDIA Jetson TK1 computers. Costing only a few hundred dollars, these mini-clusters run the same Linux operating system, parallel software stack, and compilers as the big iron. In the case of the Jetson TK1, named after the eponymous retro-futuristic cartoon family, they pack a lot of computing power – the $195 Jetson board comes with a Kepler-based NVIDIA GPU with a peak speed of over 300 gigaflops of single precision computational power.

George Jetson and his flying car stand proudly atop CISL’s three-node NVIDIA Jetson TK1 cluster. With a peak speed of nearly 1 teraflops (single precision) the cluster system provides valuable hands on experience for students interested in exploring high performance computing.

The student group then toured the computer room, peppering their tour guide, Rich Loft of the Outreach Services Group, with a wide variety of technical questions about the Yellowstone supercomputer and the facility. The tour ended with a brief walkthrough of the NWSC Visitor Center, before the students were whisked away in their limo.

“It was really great to see first- and second-year IT majors from FRCC interact with the Yellowstone environment,” said Loft. “For many of them, it may have been the first time they’ve ever seen a computer bigger than a laptop or a PC. There were a lot of wide eyes.”

The visit will be followed up in the coming weeks with three lectures at FRCC on topics like parallelism in the everyday world, writing your first parallel program, Linux cluster administration, building your own mini-supercomputer, and designing your own dream project. Afterward, FRCC students will be encouraged to propose projects, while CISL will work with Professor Eisele to provide starter kits and mentoring support for the most promising ideas.

During a question-and-answer session after the briefing, students asked about the career paths CISL staff had taken to get into scientific computing. In return, CISL staff asked them about their own backgrounds and plans. A show of hands revealed that only about a third of the students came to FRCC straight from high school, while roughly an equal number planned to go on to attend a four-year school. “Our goal is to get you so interested in supercomputing that all of you will want to go on to a four-year college,” Loft said.