U of T news

High school students get ready for the real world via computing

U of T's SciNet and SAS collaborate on big data competition

Mark Joaquim, mentor Alison Burnham, Duncan Uszkay and Daniel Podlovics with Dr. Daniel Gruner of SciNet

Big data – and the supercomputers that can handle it – have gone far past the buzzword stage.

Professionals and university researchers are using supercomputers to figure out almost everything – pandemic planning, designing public transit routes, political analysis, understanding climate change, caring for babies in neonatal intensive care wards.

That’s why the IT experts at SciNet – Canada’s largest academic supercomputing centre – have partnered with software developer SAS and the computer science department at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto and NRC Research Press – to help high school students get a foot in the door of the high performance computing revolution.

To that end, teams from high schools in the Greater Toronto Area were invited to take part in the Big Data Challenge. The initiative – launched in November 2014 – involved teams analyzing grocery store transactions using computational tools.

Over a three-month period, the students consulted with SciNet technical analysts as the teams developed their reports. Judges assessed the reports in late January. Five teams were invited to present their projects at SAS’s Toronto office on Feb. 13. Judges awarded a team from Oakville-Trafalgar High School the first prize of $1,000.

SciNet, based at the University of Toronto, operates Canada’s fastest academic computers. The SciNet technology includes an IBM BlueGene/Q, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. The BlueGene/Q is available for use by groups from the public and private research sectors.

“Everyone needs to be computer literate today,” says Daniel Gruner, chief technology officer (software) at SciNet and one of the principal organizers of the Big Data Challenge. “Almost all university research today is enabled by big data and high performance computing and the same is true for the business sector in fields such as retailing and manufacturing. So, young people need to be ready to enter the workforce with their computing skills already well developed.”

Gruner notes that this was the motivation for starting the Big Data Challenge. “We are not doing this as a feel-good thing. We want to help students who are coming to be better prepared for their careers.”

And that is exactly how the team from Oakville-Trafalgar High School benefitted from taking part in the competition. “We know much more now than we knew before the Big Data Challenge,” said Duncan Uszkay, 17, who won first prize with team mates Mark Joaquim and Daniel Podlovics, also both 17.

Alison Burham, parent mentor to the team and Duncan’s mother agrees. “This program really opened their eyes as to how much fun computing can be and the experience gave them a good idea that there are job opportunities in the computing field,” said Burham, who is in the IT field herself.

Gruner and his collaborators are now at work planning the 2015 Big Data Challenge and coordinating other types of outreach, such as professional development programs with high school teachers, where SciNet experts keep them up to speed on the latest developments in high performance computing, and big data analysis tools.