Outreach: Planes, zombies, chickens and bean bags

Author: Alistair Grant
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 | 09:15

Zombie Chickens - Attributed to B Zedan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/bzedan/960200896/)Wait a minute – isn't this a blog article for EPCC ? One of the premier HPC centres in Europe, where are zombies and bean bags coming from?

Frequent readers of our blog may have twigged that this is another article about our outreach efforts at EPCC. A few weeks ago we were in Birmingham for the Big Bang Fair 2018 (one of the largest science events  for schools held in the UK) and at the beginning of April, EPCC was once again part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Over the past six years, EPCC has developed a range of different activities to help make supercomputing and the science it enables more accessible to people of all ages and educational levels.

In addition to our existing activities, we have managed to convince, cajole and coerce more members of staff at EPCC and students into helping out at these events. Two of our colleagues, who have just joined EPCC, Jane Kennedy and Oliver Brown, showed great enthusiasm in volunteering to help out this year. Both have contributed some thoughts on their experience to this article.

The centre piece to all our outreach activities, as has been the case for the last few years, was Wee Archie. This is the second generation Wee Archie model we have produced with blue LEDs and using Raspberry Pi 3 Model B to provide the computing power. We have not got round to getting the Raspberry Pi Model B+ units yet as they have only just come out, so we think we have a little leeway before we change over to using them.

Wee Archie was used to run our current choice demonstration application, the wing design simulation. Dismay and delight were in evidence from many visitors as they watched their wings take a plane soaring into the sky or crashing into the river Forth. The reader will have to decide which emotion corresponds to which scenario. Both demonstration and hardware enable us to link our work with supercomputers (or computers in general) to something that people can feel, use and observe.

Another venerable activity was bean bag sorting – a simple activity which can be used to great effect to show some of the main aspects of parallelism, both good and bad. This activity as highlighted previously does tend to bring out the competitive element in people, notably the adults.

Jane Kennedy provided the following text about her experience at EISF, highlighting the competitive nature of people for a seemingly non-competitive set of activities:

This was my first experience participating in outreach since joining EPCC. I wanted to get involved in outreach, as it’s an important part of the University’s role in the local community. I’ve also worked various customer service jobs so I was in my element in the busy museum.

The activities we had on offer seem to have been specifically designed to bring out people’s competitive side. It was great to see so many kids and their parents engage with the stand and asking lots of questions. Most of the kids I spoke to were able to relate what they were seeing to technology they are more familiar with, such as comparing the need for a cooling system in ARCHER to the noisy fan in their games console. The day flew by, despite the fact I was working on Saturday, and I’m definitely keen for the next fair!

Sandwiched as a link between Wee Archie and Bean Bags was an XC30 board, on loan from Cray. This is the type of board which makes up the working bits of ARCHER. Often it is hard to accurately describe parts of technology to anyone, even those with a background in it, so having a board there was a great aid and helped to link the activities together. It provided a good lead in to questions and discussions on what makes a supercomputer super, what we use a supercomputer for and how to start using one.

Oliver Brown recorded his own experience of the EISF, linking his own experiences to those of the public:

What shape should an aeroplane’s wing be to maximise lift, but minimise drag? I’ll level with you: I have absolutely no idea. My background is in physics, yes, but not that kind of physics. Something I had to sheepishly admit many times during my stint on the ‘Doing Big Science on Supercomputers’ stall at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Luckily, this is exactly what modelling and simulation are for! Visitors were invited to have a go at designing their own wing, and then make use of eight Raspberry Pi ‘compute nodes’ to calculate its lift and drag properties, before seeing: a) if it could get off the ground, and b) how far it could go once in the air. For those who needed more of a hint than I could provide, there was an actual aeroplane conveniently hanging from the roof just outside the door of the Learning Centre. There were some very strong designs on the day – my biggest regret is not writing down the parameters used by the person whose plane made it to Australia! With those in hand, I could have convinced anyone I was an expert in fluid dynamics. Ach well, there’s always next time…

Aside from Wee Archie we had a selection of logic puzzles to try – it may seem abstract, but often good high-performance software begins with a sit-down and to think through very similar problems. For those more inclined to a physical challenge, we had the bucket-sort. How many bean bags can you correctly sort in to buckets in 30 seconds? For some people the answer was quite a lot! Visitors were invited to try on their own (as a serial processor) or in a group (as a parallel processor). As it turns out, simply adding more people (processors) is not guaranteed to improve performance! Computers struggle with exactly the same problem as people do here, as everyone gets in each other’s way trying to access the bean bags.

Finally, we had a display model of a blade from a Cray XC30, and posters showing how one would fit in to ARCHER. Although I use supercomputers regularly for my work, it still excites me to actually get to see the hardware! I absolutely recommend the Edinburgh International Science Festival, especially as it’s using the National Museum of Scotland as a venue, which has many other fine exhibits. If you decide to come next year, say hi to Wee Archie (or one of his siblings)!

Joining the tried and tested activities was a set of logic puzzles, these were a set of physical representations of classic puzzles and this is where the zombies and chickens come in. So there was a point to them after all, not just a headline. The puzzle sheets are available in PDF format.

There were three puzzles:

  • A Classic River Crossing puzzle – Fox-grain-chicken
  • A Time Constraint River Crossing puzzle – helping four people escape the chasing zombies
  • A  Reasoning Puzzle – two demons and escaping a house.

Some people were a little confused to begin with, what does all of this have to do with supercomputing, while others were just attracted to the toys. After a while, everyone got used to the idea that problem solving and giving clear instructions to solve it are at the core of good software development and coding. If you can’t tell a person how to do something clearly, with all their ability to fill in the blanks and counter your assumptions, how will a computer cope?

The reactions to the puzzles were interesting to say the least, who knew so many people would sacrifice others just to ensure their own escape from zombies or that they would try to get a boat to drive itself across a river? The imagination shown in trying to rewrite the puzzles was brilliant and often quite funny to listen to as participants explained elaborate methods of fooling two demons or rationalising fighting a zombie horde.

It was a very busy stint in the National Museum of Scotland for us, busy but worthwhile. We managed to interact with hundreds of people with backgrounds that spanned the spectrum of gender, ethnicity and age. All bound together by their curiosity about how things work.


Alistair Grant, EPCC


Blog Archive