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By Makeda Easter

This summer, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) hosted 50 rising high school juniors and seniors for its innovative and inaugural STEM program, CODE@TACC. With support from Mellanox and the Central Texas Summer STEM Funder Collaborative, which includes the KDK-Harman Foundation, TACC’s Life Sciences and Education and Outreach (E&O) teams designed a program that introduced students to principles in high performance computing, life sciences, and robotics.

“We put together this two week program to build an entire computer science and STEM experience, allowing us to dive deeper into hands-on projects and expose students to STEM careers.” — Mariel Robles, TACC Senior Program Coordinator

Introduction to Computing, Days 1-2

After the first cohort of 24 students arrived, Cyrus Proctor, HPC research associate at TACC, introduced them to supercomputing with a lesson and tour of Stampede, the 8th most powerful supercomputer in the world.

The Raspberry Pi, a credit card sized computer, was the focal point for most activities during the two weeks. Each student received a kit that included a Raspberry Pi Model 2, USB keyboard, an SD card and basic parts for prototypic electronic circuits. They were then instructed on how to build a personal Linux computer to use for circuit building, cluster computing, and robotics.

Students began programming with Python, a language used by novices and computer scientist experts alike. As the camp was only two weeks, the goal was not for students to become expert programmers, but to build code literacy and spark additional interest in programming.

Combining several lessons from the first day, students then worked to interface their Pis with a light emitting diode (LED) to illustrate how computer programs control the outside world.

“Math and science can be intimidating if students don’t have a sense of why you need it. We’re giving students the unique opportunity to see that it’s not that bad.” — Cyrus Proctor, TACC HPC Research Associate

Building a Supercomputer, Day 3

Students dove deeper into supercomputing with a distributed computing activity developed by Greg Zynda, a research associate in TACC’s Life Sciences Computing group. With 32 computers capable of rendering graphics on the same network, Zynda demostrated how distributed computing works through message passing and graphical interactions. While the students had fun making simple games, art, and bouncing ball acceleration across computers, the activity was a real example of distributed N-body simulations, which often run on Stampede.

Next, it was time to dramatically scale up Raspberry Pi performance. Similar to a typical large-scale computing system at TACC, the students configured and attached their Pis together to create a cluster. The students and instructors combined 32 Pis, allowing the class to run and submit a benchmark score to Graph500 and Green Graph500, benchmarks that measure compute power and energy efficiency. The student cluster, named “Super2PiR,” competed in Graph500’s toy category and placed 62nd overall in the world.

“What really makes a difference at a camp like this is the quality of instruction, and that was amazing here! The instructors were very passionate and helpful.” — Garima Singh, CODE@TACC Participant

Vislab Visit, Days 4-5

To get an inside look at how scientists use innovative technologies to visualize research, students visited TACC’s Visualization Laboratory (Vislab). Robles first introduced students to the Vislab’s systems including Stallion, a 328-megapixel tiled-display system, Lasso, multi-touch display, and an Oculus Rift. They were then given time to explore and interact with systems on their own.

To put theory into practice, Heriberto Nieto, Vislab manager, gave the students a challenge. They were to design a cursor shaped like The University of Texas’ (UT) Hook’em Horns sign using the programming language Processing. Students spent the day working on their cursor and then used the Raspberry Pis to project their creation onto a Stallion-like cluster, using Raspberry Pis.

A Day in the Life, Day 5

“Engineers make the world a better place,” Megan Wey told students as they stood in the lobby of the engineering school at UT. Whey, a mechanical engineering and French double major, led students on a tour of the engineering department and described the life of a typical UT engineering student.

While in an auditorium style classroom, students could ask Wey about different aspects of college life like choosing a major, coursework, and extracurricular activities.

“Thank you for the tremendous opportunity. Antonio had a wonderful time and seems much more confident in pursuing engineering in college.” — Rebecca Torres, parent of CODE@TACC Participant Antonio Torres

Industry Tour, Day 6

Exposing students to the myriad of careers in STEM was a major goal for CODE@TACC. A daylong tour of companies, IBM and Retail-Me-Not gave students that opportunity. IBM Design Studio, the workspace for IBM’s front-end design team, shattered the notion of STEM as sterile and unimaginative. After touring the space, students listened to a panel of new and experienced IBM employees who shared how they transitioned their love of technology into a viable career.

Next, the students visited Retail-Me-Not’s downtown Austin office. Before touring the office space, students had the opportunity to ask questions about company structure, the role of engineers in the company, and ongoing projects.

Robotics Fun, Days 7-9

Led by Joon Yee Chuah, a TACC E&O summer instructor with extensive experience in computer science and robotics, the students paired up to creatively design and build their robots powered by a combination of Raspbery Pis and Lego Mindstorms. The teams brought their creations to life by using Python to program the robots to move and respond to its environment.

In a culmination of their work over the preceding days, the teams programmed their robots to play soccer, dance, and compete in a high-energy robot derby.

Sierra Martinez and William Torres edged out 12 other teams to win the “Chicken Run” competition with their robot, Frank.

“I just wanted to thank you for letting me participate in the CODE@TACC camp. It was very beneficial to my future career in STEM, and I look forward to any upcoming events.” — Karishma Patel, CODE@TACC Participant

Looking Forward, Day 10

Wrapping up the two-weeks, students spent their last day reflecting and envisioning their own future in STEM with a panel of employees from TACC, General Motors, and Facebook. After receiving their certificates of completion and Amazon Kindle they headed home to enjoy the rest of summer. They took home their Raspberry Pi kit and were encouraged to stay engaged and explore computing with their own creative projects.

A New Beginning

But the learning did not end there. A gift from the Central Texas Summer STEM Funder Collaborative, which includes the KDK Harman Foundation, enabled TACC to repeat the programming with an all-girls cohort.

The girls cohort mirrored the previous program, but with a few additions. Coupled with the circuit building activity, was an introduction to wearables. Using conductive thread, which carries current in the same way wires can, the girls designed and created their own LED bracelets with sewing techniques.

During the industry tour, students visited Freescale, a global leader in semiconductors, and learned how semiconductors are ubiquitous in daily life. They also explored Freescale’s maker studio and viewed the semiconductor manufacturing facility. A trip to Hill Country Science Mill, a museum in Johnson City, Texas, allowed students to interact with technology-based exhibits to ignite further interest in STEM.

Said Robles: “There’s a lot of work being done to increase the number of girls who pursue computer science and STEM, but not many interventions happening in Austin. We wanted to fill that void by offering our program to girls specifically.”

See the full schedule for the program.

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