EPCC at the Sciennes Primary Summer Science Fair

Author: Mario Antonioletti
Posted: 6 Jun 2015 | 18:42

It appears that summer is not quite the same in Edinburgh as it is for the rest of the world, so on a blustery Saturday Eilidh Troup and I attended the Sciennes Primary School Summery Science Fair. On behalf of STEMNET and EPCC we wanted to show that science, in the particular context of supercomputing, can be fun and by doing so encourage young minds to head in that direction for their future careers.

We now have a standard set of activities that I think tell quite a nice narrative. We start off by doing some coloured ball sorting - have one child sorting as many balls as they can in one minute, and then two or more kids doing the same thing.The competition can get quite intense. The basic idea is that two or more can do more work than one in the same way that multiple processors can solve a problem faster.

We try to reinforce this by showing then an old supercomputer motherboard - we use one from a CM200 (as featured in the first Jurassic Park movie), mainly because it is the lightest we have (so easiest to carry) and, I think, it is rather pretty.

That is the principle and one does try to reinforce the analogy but in practice I was swamped with a constant stream of children wanting to participate and beat their peers' score, crowding around to be next in line. I was busy from the start to the finish of our stints with no breaks. Although we have run these activities a number of times we are continuously making minor improvements - in this case brand new trugs replaced tired cardboard boxes to sort the balls into.

The Towers of Hanoi, that made their first outing at the Edinburgh Science Festival, proved to be a popular standalone acitivity.

I think we should try to get a clicker so that people can verify that they are using the theoretical minimum number of moves for the number of disks used. This activity though is a very nice way to introduce the concept of algorithms and computational complexity or big O notation.

Dinosaur racing

Eilidh was in charge of the dinosaur-racing demo, which represents an application that would be run in parallel, thus fitting the above narrative. We used to run it off the HECToR supercomputing service, however this has not proved to be as easy with its successor, ARCHER, and in any case it requires an internet connection, which is seldom the case. Thus we currently run this off a laptop which offers some parallelism but not as much as we would like. Nevertheless it is a very popular activity and Eilidh was kept busy. Again a number of changes have been made to the application, improving the overall user experience.

We were both tired but pleased by the end of our three-hour stint and hope that some of the kids will now be tempted to do a STEM subject in their future careers.