The Parallel Pi Power Wall Pong Championships

By Richard Loft
07/12/2015 - 12:00am

On 18 June 2015, students in a computer science summer camp from Rock Springs, Wyoming got to find out what supercomputing is all about. The summer camp is led by Carla Hester-Croff, an Associate Professor of Information Technology at Western Wyoming Community College (WWCC). The WWCC partners with the Sweetwater Bureau of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to provide educational opportunities that are not otherwise available within Sweetwater County, where Rock Springs is located.

In this case, Hester-Croff arranged for a group of 25 fifth and eighth graders in the summer camp, along with a couple of adult chaperones, to travel from Rock Springs to Cheyenne to visit the NWSC and learn about parallel processing and Yellowstone the supercomputer.

Rock Springs computing camp at NWSC
Fifth and eighth grade students in a computer science summer camp from Rock Springs visited the NWSC facility on 18 June. During their visit, they gathered for a photo outside the front door by the Cheyenne Big Boot sculpture presented to the NWSC by Cheyenne LEADS. Photo by Rich Loft, CISL

After a long trip – four and a half hours on the bus – the students entered the NWSC Visitor Center, where a team of CISL Outreach staff was waiting with some surprises. First the students were introduced to the concept of parallelism and the Yellowstone supercomputer through a presentation given by Rich Loft. Then a series of interactive demos began on a four-screen power wall controlled by Raspberry Pi computers. The first, and clearly most popular, was a Raspberry Pi Power Wall Pong game first developed in 2013 by Rick Wagner at the San Diego Supercomputing Center. The setup was improved this summer and enhanced to run on a portable display with $80 monitors by Raj Kumar (University of Wyoming) with the help of SIParCS Student Assistants Rashmi Oak, Harish Ramachandran, and Priyanka Sanghavi.

Although a somewhat retro form of video gaming fun, the Power Wall Pong setup had a more serious purpose: students were quizzed about the parallel programming issues on display as the ball moves between screens controlled by different Raspberry Pi systems. Students were then invited to play and discuss how they could build one of their own. Then the inevitable happened: an impromptu Wyoming Pi Power Wall Pong tournament was held, with $10 going to the winner, $5 for second place, and $1 each for third and fourth. Afterward, students were shown videos (again partitioned across the Power Wall and Pi’s) of climate and hurricane simulations. Analogies were then drawn to the domain decomposition techniques used on Yellowstone to simulate climate and weather.

Pong tournament
Students compete in the first-ever Wyoming Raspberry Pi Power Wall Pong tournament. The activity teaches concepts in parallel programming. Photo by Rich Loft, CISL

David Wright, CISL’s new docent at the NWSC, gave the adults a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility and the students an orientation tour of the Visitor Center, after which the students plunged into a scavenger hunt. The visit ended with a Q&A period about careers in science and technology.

“I enjoyed the event as well and learned a great deal myself!” Wright said.

Carla will be back in September – this time with WWCC students – for a repeat performance, no doubt including another Pi Power Wall Pong tournament!