By Leyla Ezdinli -- An annual outreach program run by USC’s Collaboratory for Advanced Computing and Simulations is helping shape the future of computational science by encouraging members of underrepresented groups to pursue graduate work and research in scientific computing.
For the past eight years, the Computational Science Workshop for Underrepresented Groups has offered participants an opportunity to learn about complex research concepts in a hands-on and interdisciplinary environment.
The majority of participants are students and faculty members from small historically black colleges and universities with limited resources for research computing and curriculum development. For students, the workshop can have a profound influence on their choice of majors and careers. For faculty, the workshop offers the resources necessary to develop new courses and advance their research.
“The goal of the workshop is, in one week, to break the participants’ fear of computing and their ideas of parallel computing,” said Priya Vashishta, professor of materials science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, professor of physics at USC College and director of the Collaboratory for Advanced Computing and Simulations.
“We do not ask that people know about computing before they arrive — all we ask is that they have a good head on their shoulders,” he said.
Teaching parallel computing in a way that is comprehensible to those without a solid foundation in computer science and advanced mathematics is no small feat.
Parallel computing is a sophisticated form of computation in which a complex problem is divided into smaller problems that are then distributed to a cluster of networked computers for simultaneous processing. Parallel computing allows researchers to solve problems involving extremely large data sets much faster than would serial computation, in which operations are performed in a linear manner.
The workshop takes a novel and ambitious approach to teaching parallel computing. On the first day, each student assembles his or her own computer from components and installs the Linux operating system. All the computers in the workshop are then networked together to form a cluster.
Over the course of the week, students learn to write and compile code, write parallel codes, run programs on the cluster and analyze the cluster’s performance metrics.
The workshop was designed and developed by Rajiv Kalia, Aiichiro Nakano and Vashishta, the founders of the collaboratory, all of whom hold joint appointments in USC’s departments of physics and astronomy, chemical engineering and materials science, and computer science.
“This is an extremely intense workshop,” Nakano said. “It was Priya’s vision to have students build a supercomputer cluster from personal computers. He trained all of us,” said Nakano, referring to the collaboratory faculty and graduate students who organize and teach the workshop each year.
The workshop requires considerable planning and commitment from faculty and graduate students, who must prepare classes, select computer components, verify the compatibility of the components, test the system that participants will build and order parts before the workshop begins.
Administrative assistant Patricia Wong spends months before and after the workshop working on the logistics and making sure that all the details fall into place.
The workshop requires an equal amount of commitment from participants. The days are necessarily long — students learn a semester’s worth of complicated material in one week.
“If you are thinking of going to Disneyland between now and Saturday, you can forget about it,” Vashishta warned participants on the first day of the workshop, which took place from June 22 to June 27.
Many of the students and faculty who attended had never been in California before. One student boarded an airplane for the first time in his life in order to attend the workshop. All remained unfazed by Vashishta’s warning, well aware of the resources that would be at their disposal throughout the week.
Throughout the week, guest lectures by USC faculty members and visiting researchers touched on the scope of computational science in fields as diverse as nanotechnology, robotics, molecular dynamics and seismology.
Margery Berti, associate dean for doctoral programs at the USC Viterbi School, encouraged the students to pursue advanced degrees and gave them advice about selecting the right graduate school. Cauligi Raghavendra, senior associate dean for strategic initiatives at the school, spoke about the importance of diversity for the future of science and engineering.
“Everyone takes something valuable away from this experience,” said Mohammad Vedadi, a dual-degree graduate student in physics and computer science, who was the leader of the team that organized this year’s workshop.
“I never expected to put together a computer,” said Arielle Calloway, a math major at Dillard University in New Orleans. “It was tight,” she said.
One faculty member at a small college who teaches a course on operating systems said that she had never installed the Linux operating system on a computer. She intended to return to her home institution and incorporate Linux into the courses that she taught.
Christopher Gutierrez, who has a Bachelor of Science in computer science from California State University, Bakersfield, and who will begin the master’s program in computer science at New York University this fall, enjoyed seeing how fast parallel computing was, compared to running programs on a single computer.
“As an undergraduate, I never learned about parallel computing; I only studied the architecture of a single computer,” Gutierrez said. “I’m coming away a better programmer.”
The workshop was planned and organized by the collaboratory dual-degree graduate students, who also taught many of the classes. “I was amazed at what a great job they did,” Nakano said.
Reshard Horne, a student at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas who plans to pursue an advanced degree in computer sciences, said, “Watching the graduate students learn to be teachers and leaders was really inspirational.”
As Vashishta explained, a workshop in parallel computing is difficult to implement because it requires a lot of technical expertise and significant resources, including people and funding.
"We have been fortunate to receive funding from the Department of Defense’s High-Performance Computing Modernization Program and the National Science Foundation’s Materials Theory Program,” Vashishta said.
“Students write us that having this workshop on their resume really makes a difference in where they are admitted for graduate school. This makes all the work worthwhile,” he added.