The National Institute for Computational Sciences

High school students develop HPC experience at NICS

Three students from local Hardin Valley Academy are the first high school students to hold internships at the institute

by Caitlin Elizabeth Rockett



With funding from the National Science Foundation and management from the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville (UT), it’s no wonder that the National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS) places great emphasis on educating future scientists. Located on the campus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), NICS is composed of and surrounded by a diverse group of scientific mavens, from astrophysicists to zoologists. Needless to say, if a career in computational sciences interests you, NICS is a great place to hone your skills. While many educational opportunities at NICS are directed at graduate and undergraduate students, three talented high school seniors from nearby Hardin Valley Academy (HVA) recently had the chance to explore the world of high-performance computing via NICS’ world-class resources and dedicate staff.

All three students—Kyle Goodrick, Ryan Wagner, and Dawson Botsford—are enrolled in HVA’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) academy. HVA is divided into four academies: business/law/public affairs, health science, liberal arts, and STEM. Incoming freshmen choose their academy at the end of their eighth grade year, but students aren’t locked into that choice if they find their interests changing along the way. All four academies offer students the opportunity to seek an academy endorsement, a process that pushes students to excel by performing community service, fulfilling an internship with a mentor, maintaining a high GPA, and taking classes beyond the state’s requirements. The internship experience, called Senior Portfolio, is intended to prepare students for all aspects of professional life—dress codes, sick days, time-management, and work relationships are just a few of the topics that students are asked to reflect upon as they chronicle their internships. In addition to journaling about their internship experience, each student’s Senior Portfolio is finalized by a cumulative project that requires students write a research paper related to their placement and endorsement and make a series of three presentations (one to students in their academy, another to the HVA and Knox County communities, and the last to all four academy deans).

Wagner, Botsford and Goodrick in June 2012. The students are currently completing summer internships with various members of NICS before heading to college this fall.

Goodrick, Wagner, and Botsford each gained an endorsement from the STEM academy. These young scholars represent the first high school students to maintain internships at NICS (another HVA STEM student completed an internship with ORNL’s Leadership Computing Facility), but their work is also opening doors for other STEM academy students.

“This is the first year we’ve had students completing internships at the lab,” said Debbie Sayers, HVA chemistry teacher and dean of the STEM academy. “It’s been an incredibly successful experience, but that’s because these students were ready for the professional environment and the workload. We hope there will be other students who can follow in their footsteps.”

Botsford was the first HVA student to come to NICS in September 2011. He was initially placed with Jim Ferguson, director of NICS’ Education, Outreach, and Training group and initiator of the partnership with HVA along with Sayers. While under Ferguson’s tutelage, Botsford began to learn a common programming language called Python and he expanded this education by helping another NICS employee, Amy Szczepanski, iron out the kinks in some Python teaching documents.

“Amy ran a five-week class for anyone in the community who wanted to learn about programming in Python,” explained Botsford. “Since she only has a Mac, I tested the directions in her documents on Windows. I helped her figure out what didn’t work on Windows and I learned Python along the way.”

Botsford’s next assignments at NICS were quite different—he helped allocation and accounts specialist Patti Redd clear out old user accounts and setup new ones, and he assisted user support specialist Christal Yost with NICS' media organization. Yost taught Botsford the ropes of digital SLR camera photography (staff pictures for the website); how to create visual diagrams (about the NICS website and wiki); how to generate simple databases to organize staff and user publications; and how to build a website usability survey using the webform feature in Drupal (the open-source content management system upon which the NICS website is built). Not only did Botsford learn varied skills during his jobs at NICS, he earned school credit for his time and peaked the interest of HPC consultant Matt Mackenzie who offered Botsford an internship opportunity past the end of his school obligation. During this practicum, Botsford got the chance to work on NICS data analysis and visualization machine Nautilus. Using a software tool called Eden, Botsford was able to look at the efficiency of run times during multiple concurrent jobs. Data from Eden provides a better idea of how users can create and distribute their jobs for maximum productivity.

Botsford’s extensive time with NICS earned him more than just school credit and the respect of his mentors—he will be attending the University of Colorado at Boulder this fall while simultaneously fulfilling an internship with the Department of Defense. He credits NICS for his success as it “set him apart” from other high school graduates seeking the same positions.

Fellow HVA students Ryan Wagner and Kyle Goodrick joined Botsford at NICS in January, and both had equally educational and diverse experiences. Wagner worked with three NICS staffers: Tabitha Samuel and Glenn Hope of the Systems Operations group, and HPC consultant Daniel Lucio. Through these connections Wagner was given the chance to learn new tools for Web application development and Python analysis (Django and Matplotlib), install different Linux (an open-source operating system) distributions, and research file transfers and data archival methods. Wagner said that working with Linux (during his time with Glenn Hope) was most enjoyable for him as he plans on focusing on software engineering at UT this fall.

Goodrick, on the other hand, is more interested in the hardware that is associated with high-performance computing—he plans to double major in computer engineering and electrical engineering, also at UT, this fall. Working with Glenn Hope, Goodrick was able to learn some command line (the interactions between a human and a computer program) and begin working on a virtual machine that utilizes Gentoo Linux. Goodrick also spent time with Christal Yost learning how to create educational posters from the stunning visuals created by some of NICS’ most interesting research projects. The posters that he made (describing the science behind black holes and research on cost-effective production of biofuel) are currently displayed in the NICS office space.

Like Botsford, Wagner and Goodrick were invited to hold summer internships at NICS before heading to school in August. They will each shadow members of the Systems Operations and User Support groups and aid with various tasks. All three gentlemen received their high school diplomas from HVA on May 19 and are looking forward to the fresh challenges that college will bring.