Allison Loperfido and Michael Grafton
Editor, Science Writing Intern
Cornell Theory Center
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Education, higher; Education, continuing or distance; Research, academic
Innovative or improved ways of doing things; More equitable access to technology or electronic information
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Supercomputers in the Classroom: Internet Catalyzes Curriculum Change
The Clinton-Gore administration has proclaimed that the yet to be developed national information infrastructure” would be analogous to the nation’s highway system. Equipped only with a modest vehicle — in this case a simple personal computer with a modem — any American can “travel” to any distant location on the highway, accessing the remote data they need to make their life simpler and more productive. The experts are predicting that by the year 2020, most people will have access to an almost limitless storehouse of education and business information through a nationwide data network. But in today’s academic world, the stakes in the network game are already higher than ever- increasing numbers and ways, academic institutions are using network technologies to gain access to remote resources, applications, and information opportunities that would otherwise go unrealized, particularly in terms of creative, innovative, and leading edge curriculum development.
One exciting example of the power of transcontinental computer networking is the use, through the Internet, of the supercomputing resources available at The Cornell Theory Center in Ithaca.
Across the country, without ever leaving their home institutions, researchers and students are being trained in the effective use of supercomputers to solve previously untried scientific problems. The Theory Center makes available Education Accounts — blocks of time on the supercomputers for educational purposes — through which problems in quantum chemistry, the behavior of metal structures, and quantum mechanics in momentum space, among others, are addressed by graduate and undergraduate students whose own institutions have limited computing resources
Dating from the Spring of 1988, undergraduate and graduate course instructors throughout the United States have used Education Accounts to integrate the power of supercomputing into their everyday course work. Each student in such a course receives an allocation of supercomputer time for their very own use, with which they can take advantage of supercomputing techniques for parallel and vector processing, for the exploitation of large memory, and/or for the use of visualization tools. That all these powerful resources can be delivered right to the student’s desk is a direct result of the Internet and its ability to connect institutions in geographically diverse locations.
As a result of Education Accounts, many course curriculums have been developed that use — even require — supercomputer power to solve real- world problems. One such course is “Computational Quantum Chemistry,” a graduate level course taught at Washington State University by Ronald D. Poshusta. Poshuta’s students used the Theory Center’s supercomputers to address the empirical, semiempirical, and ab initio methods of quantum chemistry as applied to the determination of chemical properties and reactivity. Conducted in the Spring of 1991 with five graduate students, this course focused special attention on graphical representation of large data sets generated by quantum chemistry programs. Dr. Vijay K. Goel of the University of Iowa has introduced computer techniques for biomedical systems designs to his students in a course entitled “Biomedical Systems Design.” Here, in the fall of 1990, the fundamentals of vectorization and parallelization were studied, and 25 students used an Education Account over the Internet to run large, computationally intense projects on the Theory Center’s supercomputers.
Through another Education Account, Auburn University’s Cheri Pancake used the Theory Center’s supercomputers to conducted a course entitled “Advanced Scientific Computing,” in the fall of 1990. The course focused on structured approaches to performance improvement through vectorization and parallelization; twenty-four students relied on such resources as Parallel FORTRAN, the PF Trace Facility, IAD, and other parallelization tools such as PAT, PTOOL, and PED during their studies. Earlier that year, in the spring of 1990, parallel algorithms used in computational microhydrodynamics were studied at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in Sangtae Kim’s course entitled “New Directions in Computational Microhydrodynamics.” Graduate students have been using the large memory of the Theory Center’s supercomputers- via the Internet — to solve dense systems of equations, as well as to vectorize and parallelize algorithms for performing Gauss-Jacobi iterations.
As more educators become aware of the possibilities the Internet can provide, such as Education Accounts, the number of students with access to state-of-art supercomputing facilities will increase, extending the nationwide knowledge base concerning the effective use of supercomputing technology. It is just such advances in the scientific method which the Clinton-Gore administration aims to achieve with their national information infrastructure. The Internet, a baby network compared to the system being proposed, provides dramatic proof that an information highway will pave the way to a new age of scientific discovery.