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Oklahoma State University
High Performance Computing Center

A unit in the Division of the Vice President for Research

OSU HPCC teaches supercomputing to preschoolers

OSU HPCC Director Dana Brunson recently took on one of her biggest challenges to date. She had to explain the field of supercomputing to a classroom of preschoolers.

Cynthia Francisco, who works in the OSU mathematics department along with her husband Chris, was familiar with Brunson’s work with the OSU HPCC. Francisco’s son is a student with First Presbyterian Preschool in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“My son’s class had people coming to talk about their jobs during a ‘Community Helpers’ themed week,” Francisco says. “A nurse and a policeman came. Dana’s work also helps the community, and I knew she had hands-on props the kids would like, so I invited her.”

Armed with enthusiasm, coloring sheets from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) website and a small computer cluster housed in an orange and black Lego frame, Brunson arrived ready to teach 4 and 5 year olds about the basics of computing.

Brunson began her presentation by explaining how computers help people in a variety of careers the preschoolers were already familiar with: doctors, nurses, and weather forecasters were among the group.

Through all of this, the students focused in on the orange and black Lego-encased computer cluster sitting beside Brunson. Just when the anticipation was almost too much for them, Brunson explained what it was: a “baby supercomputer.”

“I explained that each board was its own computer,” Brunson says. “By connecting all of them, they could all work together to solve big problems. Their teacher went a step further and compared the cluster to a group of friends helping one another out.”

Using the cluster, Brunson demoed the GalaxSee simulator, which allowed the students to see how a computer could take complex calculations about star movements to create a time-lapse simulation of a million years’ worth of movements into just a few minutes.

The preschoolers enjoyed the orange and black Legos around the cluster, the blinking lights and thought it was "cool" that the HPCC supercomputer was named Cowboy. Jaws dropped even more when Brunson explained that the Cowboy supercomputer is as big as six refrigerators.

At the end of Brunson’s presentation, the students broke into groups to do various activities like painting and snack time. Spending more time with Brunson and the cluster was one of the options that day.

“Snack is usually the most popular choice, but Dana was the first choice that day.” Francisco says. “They loved it!”

All the students received stickers from the OneOklahoma Cyberinfrastructure Initiative (ONEOCII), a collaborative statewide network of Oklahoma supercomputing centers and industry leaders, marking them as official users of a supercomputer.

With the success of this visit under her belt, Brunson looks forward to doing more outreach to local schools and educational centers in the area. She wants to adapt this outreach experience to all ages and levels of learning to get people interested in computing from a young age.

“If I can explain supercomputing to a class of preschoolers, the possibilities are endless as to what the OSU HPCC can develop for future outreach,” Brunson says. “Who knows? Maybe in 30 years one of these preschoolers will be taking over my job!”