Junkyard Clusters

Author: Mario Antonioletti
Posted: 5 Apr 2016 | 12:30

It was not without a certain element of trepidation that I volunteered to help out at our offering at this year's Edinburgh International Science Festival: Junkyard Clusters.

The activity basically involved taking a stripped down Dell desktop system and, in a workshop format, with a host of mostly young participants, walking them through putting the machine back together, networking the systems up and from the now working systems getting them to collaboratively build a fractal image.

I have taken systems apart before and occasionally been able to put them back together again into a working state but practical matters are not my forte, which perhaps is the reason why careerwise I have veered towards the theoretical and computational side of things.

We were in the Seminar Room on Level 4 of the National Museum of Scotland where we placed 8 stripped down workstations:

Each system had been taken apart,

the components contained in the trays at the front:

At first we would get the attendees to pick up their own components but, in order to minimise congestion and the tendency to race to be first to get to the components, we later started handing them out. Basically what one had was:

although components were only acquired one at a time. The particpants had to put in the power supply, the processor (not shown), the processor's heat sink, two memory DIMMs, a graphics card, a memory card unit and a DVD drive as well as a hard disk, connecting it all to the motherboard. A set of instructions were available but we found it was better to call out the instructions thus keeping everyone together, working at the same pace. Alistair Grant ably called out the instructions for all the sessions and he was helped by two of: myself, Gordon Gibb, Fiona Reid and some of our current PhD students Justs Zarins, Larisa Stoltzfus. This process, I think worked remarkably well.

Over five days, with two workshops per day, we had most of the desktop systems coming up first time. I was involved in three out of the five days and only on two occasions did a desktop not boot up first time. Each workstation usually had one or two young people (usually between 8-16 year olds although there will have been instances of some that were younger) helping to build the system surrounded by family members. We reckoned that we must have about 200 people participating altogether over the five days. Of course, not only did they build the desktop but then they participated in collectively constructing a fractal image, the Mandelbrot set or Julia, once the systems had been networked:

In this case each phone icon with a name is helping to build the fractal image. Once completed participants could sign up to receive a certificate via email after the event:

After my stint helping young people rebuild these desktop systems I hope that, as much as I have, they will have lost their fear of the innards of a computer and that they, like I have, be tempted to study a STEM subject in their future careers.  


Mario Antonioletti, EPCC