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TACC: A Holistic Approach to Making Cyberinfrastructure Accessible

Published on November 8, 2017 by Faith Singer-Villalobos

Code@TACC DesignSafe-CI students and TACC staff, 2016.

At the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in Austin, Texas, the Education and Outreach (E&O) group is focused on broadening participation and accessibility in advanced computing through a holistic and relationship-centered approach.

"It's more than user training and making the systems and software physically accessible to users," said Joon Yee Chuah, senior program coordinator. "Our approach includes searching for non-traditional users of high performance computing and, for the most part, that means students who are historically underrepresented in STEM."

High school students participate in the Code@TACC DesignSafe-CI STEM program and summer camp, 2016.
The E&O group is collaborating with TACC researchers to create new ways to teach students and communities about supercomputers and coding. Recruitment and engagement strategies for summer programs, conference workshops, interactive tours, guided activities in classrooms, and community events are driven by considerations that look at the student as a whole person.

For example, Dawn Hunter, senior program coordinator, spends time speaking at schools, churches and recreation centers to build new relationships with students. She understands that students are more likely to sign up for TACC's summer camps and stay engaged with the content because they know someone is there to support them throughout the process.

Of course, TACC provides students with accessibility to rich technology, content and expertise. "There isn't anything else out there like this in Austin and maybe in Texas," Chuah says. "We have the supercomputing resources and a complete pathway from the devices to the cloud to the web and to data analytics. No other institution does all of these things."

TACC's E&O programs recruit students that don't have access to coding experiences. The curriculum is designed to build up a level of familiarity and skill that gives students knowledge about how technology impacts their lives, and how attending summer camps can be both an educational and economic opportunity for them in the future. Summer programs like Code@TACC have expanded offerings to accommodate the needs of students with diverse interests and backgrounds.

"Our approach includes searching for non-traditional users of high performance computing and, for the most part, that means students who are historically underrepresented in STEM."
Joon Yee Chuah, Senior Program Coordinator, TACC
For example, Code@TACC DesignSafe CI is an innovative and exciting summer program that exposes students to the nation's civil infrastructure communities to prevent natural hazard events from becoming societal disasters. Students foster their talent and creativity by being introduced to the principles of high performance computing and engineering that utilizes cloud computing tools. "We designed the program so it provides a difficulty ramp that builds confidence before students do things that need intellectual risk," Chuah said.

TACC also provides opportunities for continuous learning for teachers. For Code@TACC: DesignSafe CI, the center incorporated the participation of teachers who were part of the National Science Foundation-supported Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program. The RET program brings in teachers that participate in the actual research activities. Their specific objective, in addition to learning about civil engineering, was to design coursework that will be used to train undergraduates or new users of the DesignSafe cyberinfrastructure.

"The teachers had to approach the RET from the perspective of a learner," Chuah said. As a former public school teacher himself, he believes the best way to get good at something is to teach it to a student who has no prior experience. "That makes you a practitioner of the content," he said. "We created an intellectual pathway for the fundamental skills that students have at this particular age and bring them together so they can do interesting things using coding and supercomputers."

TACC's overall mission with E&O is threefold: 1) to introduce students to the societal impacts of computing; 2) to empower students to be technically creative problem solvers; and 3) to broaden awareness and participation of students who are historically underrepresented in STEM.

Education & Outreach team (left to right) Dawn Hunter, Rosie Gomez, Joon Yee Chuah.
"I want to make sure that everything I do goes back to our mission," says Hunter. "All of our Code@TACC summer camps, which include Wearables, Robotics and DesignSafe-CI, have pushed the students to do something they've never done before, and hopefully empowers them to do something more with what they know."

A quarterly program called Back@TACC keeps the students (and their families) connected and involved. How can we educate the parent to be more of an advocate for the student? If your child is in elementary school, where should he/she be going to get additional education? These are the questions that TACC can help answer. "We provide parents with activities that their child could be doing at home to get prepared for the school year," Hunter said.

TACC believes that continuous outreach in advanced computing is a necessity. The concept of "one and done" is not effective, according to Chuah. Continuous contact is where progress and gains are made.



Faith Singer-Villalobos

Communications Manager | 512-232-5771

Aaron Dubrow

Science And Technology Writer

Jorge Salazar

Technical Writer/Editor | 512-475-9411