Super Competing: Magnet Students Win Parallel Computing Competitions

by Ted Jou

Magnet students participate in a yearly cycle of competitions from the Intel Science Talent Search to Olympiad teams, but a group of students ventured into new territory this year by entering two computer competitions as the first teams ever from Blair. First, three students competed at the TeraGrid conference in June, and they were the highest scoring high school team. They recruited three more teammates for the SC09 conference in November, and they tied for first place while competing against teams of college students.

Before retiring at the end of last school year, Susan Ragan learned that there would be a student programming contest at the TeraGrid '09 conference in Arlington, VA. On short notice, Ms. Ragan recruited a group of three enthusiastic students to participate: Andrew Das Sarma '11, Anand Oza '10, and Rohan Puttagunta '10. They formed their team in May and had just a few weeks to prepare for the competition. Andrew, Anand, and Rohan learned to program in NetLogo and MPI and met once or twice a week to do practice problems from the Teragrid website. While there was a lot to learn, all the students were on Computer Team and had experience with various other computer science competitions like USACO, ACSL, and other programming contests. Rohan believes that Computer Team "gave us a lot of experience solving problems quickly and correctly". He thought it "helped us overcome the knowledge advantage that the college students had on us." TeraGrid '09 was held in Crystal City, so Andrew, Anand, and Rohan boarded the Metro early on Tuesday, June 23rd to make the commute. After breakfast, eight problems were posted online, and the teams were given until 5pm to develop solutions (or explain their problem-solving processes for partial credit). As a team of 3, the Blair team was at a disadvantage compared with others with 5 members, but they worked hard until the deadline and felt confident that they did well. While they expected to win the high school division, the students were surprised to learn that they had the third highest score in the entire competition, losing only to the top graduate team (Carnegie Mellon) and the top undergraduate team (Earlham College). The students also had a chance to participate in other talks and workshops at Teragrid discussing wide-ranging topics from high-speed networking equipment, multi-processor bus configurations, job queue scheduling, and TeraGrid sites and capabilities. Andrew reports: "It should suffice to say that my mind was blown." Many participants at TeraGrid told Andrew, Anand, and Rohan about another conference in November – SC09 – which was supposed to be bigger and better. They wanted to go.

Ms. Ragan was already involved with the SC Conference, serving on one of their committees and helped lead a session on Computational Thinking as a representative of Maryland Virtual High School. She encouraged them to register and to recruit more teammates, but this competition would also be expensive because it was held on the other side of the country in Portland, Oregon. She was able to secure funding for the expenses of four students, but they still needed a chaperone, and they did not want to be handicapped with a smaller team again. The students' parents dug into their own pockets, and the Magnet Foundation provided a grant to reimburse the rest of the expenses. The team was able to participate with a full complement of five magnet students and an alternate. The students invited Chenyu Zhao '10, David Tolnay '10, and Jacob Hurwitz '10 to join the team. They had heard about Teragrid, and Jacob said "I wished I could've been there to help!" The team met every couple weeks after school for about 2 hours during which they solved problems from previous SC competitions and discussed their solutions. They also spent extensive time on their own brainstorming and learning a software package called Vensim. Like TeraGrid, the SC09 Student Programming Competition was an all-day affair. Early on November 16, six questions were posted online. Only five members of the team could participate in the competition, so David served as the alternate. Each member of the team took one problem, while Andrew worked on two. The problems covered a diverse range of topics: combinatorics, CUDA, genetic algorithms, simulated annealing, ciphers, and benchmarking. The competition took place right on the convention floor, where students furiously writing code on their laptops were found alongside vendors describing their latest products. Chenyu thought "we had well prepared from doing practice problems and brainstorming about the teasers," but all the students felt like they could have doen better. As Jacob explained, "every person came out thinking, 'I wish I had spent another 15 minutes on my write-up,' or 'I wish I had 30 extra minutes to code that extra feature.'" The judges found the Blair team's solutions good enough for first place, in a tie with a team representing the University of Delaware's Computer Science Department. Before and after the competition, the students also attended many workshops and explored the exhibition floor. Jacob thought that his best interactions came with university professors. Andrew remembers a plenary talk by Justin Rattner, the CTO of Intel, about supercomputing initiatives and future Intel products. Rohan remembers learning "about how high performance computing applies to science," and he may have summed it best for all the students by simply saying: "It was cool."

For Andrew, Anand, Chenyu, David, Jacob, and Rohan, it was an experience they would not soon forget, and for the Blair Magnet, it was another trophy (or two) on the shelf.