EPCC goes doon the water

Author: Alistair Grant
Posted: 31 Mar 2014 | 10:49

This month, Mario, Toni and I took a trip 'doon the water' to Rothesay Academy to introduce some of the concepts of supercomputing to first and second year pupils.

Rothesay is on the Isle of Bute and during the 19th century it was famous for its hydropathic establishments and treatments. Our team had been invited to visit the school as part of National Science and Engineering Week 2014, and we spent the day showing some of the demonstrations developed by EPCC for explaining the basics of supercomputing and its uses. 

Over the course of the day we spoke to five classes averaging 15 pupils each. This number worked well with our three interactive activities: Dinosaur Racing, Ball Sorting and Supercomputing Hardware.

Each session began with a brief talk about the need for and use of supercomputers. This included how supercomputers can help scientific discovery and some examples of the uses of computer simulation. The pupils at the academy responded well to the questions asked of them, recognising some of the problems that can occur in parallel processing, for example load balancing. Even without the term being formally introduced to them, they recognised that having one processor doing no work while another has too much to do can cause problems. Other problems included calculations which were needlessly split across multiple processors in the simulation, increasing the amount of required communications.

After a brief introduction, the classes split into groups to work on the different activities. The Ball Sorting demo was run by Toni on her first outreach event of this type. This activity requires participants to work out a parallel sorting algorithm to sort a bag of coloured balls into boxes with some restrictions on the operations they can do. Toni introduced the idea of serial sorting and guided the group towards a solution that would work for them.

I introduced the dinosaur-racing simulation. This has been used successfully at science festivals and other events to show how simulation can be employed for different purposes, some of which may not be immediately obvious. The pupils each designed a dinosaur and raced them against each other. An important part of this exercise was seeing that a poorly proportioned dinosaur could be made but it would often fall over during the race. The participants could realise from this that a lot of money can be saved if major errors are caught at the modelling stage before a physical prototype is built, for example when designing a car.

Meanwhile Mario was introducing some of the technology and hardware used in computers and supercomputers with a desktop PC and boards from supercomputers hosted by EPCC in the past. With four exhibits for viewing, Mario was able to show how a desktop PC and a supercomputer are related, what is the same and how they differ. Bringing in information about costs, reliability and tasks such as keeping them cool, the participants could get an understanding of how creating a supercomputer is a little more complicated that just whacking bits together and putting a program on it. 

During all of the sessions, questions were encouraged. Some of these were the more common ones such as who uses the supercomputers, what do they do on them and how much do they cost. Others spread out to topics like time travel and sports analysis, while the unusual question of the day was 'What would happen if you licked a supercomputer motherboard when it's switched on?' Getting questions, including unusual ones, is a vital part of introducing any topic to a wider audience, no question about it is off-limits and people should not be afraid to ask the question. The worst that can happen is that the expert will be unable to answer it.

We felt the day went well and hope we've inspired some pupils to consider a science or engineering career. We'd like to thank Jennifer Smith and Rothesay Academy for inviting us and the hospitality they provided. The pupils were a credit to their school and the teachers in it.

Funding for EPCC to visit Rothesay Academy was obtained by the school via the British Science Association (BSA) and the Scottish NSEW Grant scheme. This scheme has closed for the 2014 National Science and Engineering Week, though the BSA does offer help with finding funding for events regularly.


Alistair Grant, EPCC


Mario Antonioletti's picture

The local paper, the Buteman, had a short article about our visit: