Innovative Learning Week 2013

Author: Mark Filipiak
Posted: 23 Apr 2013 | 10:45

For one week in February, the University of Edinburgh suspends traditional lectures, tutorials, and labs and supports a programme of alternative learning activities: Innovative Learning Week.

EPCC runs the MSc in High Performance Computing (HPC), teaching students the tools and techniques they require to program modern parallel computers.  During Innovative Learning Week, students from the MSc in HPC took part in three activities: developing an exhibit to explain HPC concepts to 7-12 year old children, writing a mobile app for learning numbers in Japanese, and building small computing clusters out of scrap (and not so scrap) computing hardware.

The six-strong outreach team worked with Sara Shinton from the Bang Goes the Borders Science Festival which is held in September in Melrose.  They developed four exhibit ideas for EPCC’s next outreach demonstration at the festival.

Vanya Yaneva and Jia Song from the outreach team with the exhibit ideas

Gaurav Saxena and Weronika Filinger worked together to write a simple mobile app to learn numbers in Japanese using a game like structure.  At the start of the week they knew nothing about Android, a bit about XML, and a bit of Java; at the end of the week they had a simple app working on the Android platform.

Screenshot of the mobile app in development

The other MSc in HPC students participated in a Cluster Building Challenge.  In friendly competition with the ISC team, who are building a cluster out of ARM processor boards, four more teams of 4 students each built a cluster from a variety of old, discarded hardware.

The Rocks on Jimmy team had five 32-bit nodes from a scrapped cluster that had been used in the National e-Science Centre.  Using the Rocks cluster building software, they got to 21 Gflops and 22 Mflops/watt on the Linpack HPL benchmark.  Not quite as green as the ISC team (a.k.a. team ARMaggedon), who achieved 103 Mflops/watt with their cluster of 7 PandaBoard worker nodes and one Raspberry Pi head node.

ARM processor boards (the CARMA boards at the back weren’t used in the benchmarking)

The PELICaN team took a different approach and used different software (Pelican).  They happened to have a 24-way and an 8-way network switch and decided to go all out for speed, eventually using 26 of the 32-bit nodes.  With some tuning they reached 67 Gflops overall and kept the room nice and warm by dissipating 3kW of power.

The 26 node cluster

The two other teams had different hardware and different challenges.  The Atom Smasher team used four low-power, 64-bit Atom processors to run disk-bound data intensive jobs using Hadoop Map/Reduce and then added some higher-power 32-bit nodes to make a hybrid cluster.  And the WSoGMM team had a totally heterogeneous system: one Sony laptop, one Dell desktop, one low-power Atom desktop, and a rather old Dell PowerEdge rack-mountable server.  Their main challenge was to get good load balancing between the very different processors.

The heterogeneous cluster

At the end of the week there was a ‘show and tell’ session by all the teams from all the activities, attended by EPCC staff and other students.

Show and tell session at the end of the week

Innovative Learning Week was a great success with the students, who enjoyed working on something completely different for a week.  We certainly plan to have similar activities next year.

Although this week was more busy than the others, I really enjoyed it.  All these months here, we had been working on Hector and Morar [computing clusters used for MSc teaching in EPCC] and we hadn't seen how a cluster looks like or how a it can be built.  We had the chance to see how people work in groups, how they are trying to find solutions and the diversity in how people are thinking is a way to solve everything.  Furthermore, although I have been running Linux on my computer for quite a few years, I hadn't had the chance to work on that level.

Dimitrios Kapnopoulos (PELICaN cluster team)

I would start by saying that it was an amazing experience for me.  I was a member of the mobile application development team.  On Monday we knew nothing about Android, xml and a bit of Java and seriously had no idea as to how we would make 'anything' for the Android platform.  Well we did make something and seeing it run on the mobile device gave me/us an amazing feeling of achievement.  I understand that the work that we did was very elementary and incomplete, but it is a certainly a start.  Alistair Grant [Applications Consultant, EPCC] motivated us at each step and with his wonderful sense of humor kept us going despite repeated failures and disappointments.  It was like a crash course in swimming - when you're thrown into the water and if you can stay afloat - the inner smile appears.  Hence I feel it is an amazing idea to have an Innovative learning Week where students are exposed to various activities.

Gaurav Saxena (mobile app team)

Photos courtesy of Dmitry Tsigelnitskiy, Cian Booth, and Claire Simpson.


Mark Filipiak, EPCC

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