Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Adventures in Teaching

Yesterday I gave my world-famous Crash Course in Supercomputing. My boss, after learning that I had given this course before, asked me to teach the summer students about supercomputing. Fifteen or twenty students showed up to learn from my wisdom.

I first developed this course for some minority high school students in the Washington, D.C. area in the summer of 2004. I improved upon it for this second iteration, generalizing some of the stuff that was specific to the computer they were using, adding content, improving explanations, and adding lots of pretty pictures, including pictures of old computers, such as this one, my all-time favorite supercomputer:

1976 Cray Supercomputer/Bench for your lobby

That is a Cray supercomputer from 1976. The tall part in the middle is the computer. The shorter, C-shaped part contains the cooling system. The nifty thing is that this computer doubles as furniture for the lobby of your company headquarters. The outer part is a vinyl-covered C-shaped bench. If I knew where I could get one of those bad boys, I would totally buy one. Too bad they stopped making them thirty years ago! But I digress...

This time I gave the course in one day rather than over the course of several days. This is because the room I wanted was available only on Mondays and Fridays, and it didn't make sense to do the course on non-consecutive days. So the morning was spent learning about Unix, the vi editor, Makefiles, and batch scripts, while the afternoon was reserved for parallel programming concepts and MPI.

I think they thought I was a little bit insane. I like to keep things lively, because otherwise people will go to sleep. So I said some pretty outrageous things just to see what would happen. At one point, I talked about the command to look at the batch queue, so that you can see what jobs are running and get an idea of how long you'll have to wait before your job will run. "You can use this command to figure out who to hate," I said. One person got it and laughed. Everyone else stared at me blankly. "That was meant to be a joke," I added. "You were supposed to laugh." Then they all laughed.

At the end of the day, I had them fill out an evaluation form. Overall I got pretty decent evaluations. Nobody completely hated me, and most people learned a lot from the course. I felt good about that and I'll probably do it again next year.

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