Panel on Student Competitions

Wednesday, July 21, 9:20 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. PST

Research computing and data (RCD) science conferences can be overwhelming for first-time attendees; especially for students. Even so, they’re one of the best ways for students to get acquainted with advanced technologies, science drivers, and the global community of caring that leads to academic acceleration, internships and employment. 

Some students enjoy participating in co-located competitions where they can showcase their skills and meet like-minded colleagues. The environment serves as a conference on-ramp experience; a safe place where they can shine, and help others improve their skills while they’re at it. 

There are co-located student cluster competitions (SCC’s) at the Supercomputing Asia Conference (SCA, early March), International Supercomputing Conference (ISC, mid-June), Supercomputing Conference (SC, late November), Centre for High Performance Computing National Meeting (CHPC, early December), and others. ISC and SC contests were virtual in 2020 (ISC’21); the inaugural Winter Classic virtual contest is expected to return February 2022. The National Science Foundation’s Science Gateways Community Institute (NSF-SGCI) Hackathon was virtual in 2020 and 21; it will conclude one week prior to PEARC21 so that students can take full advantage of the conference workshops and tutorials. The week’s respite will help prevent Zoom fatigue.

When interviewed, competitors who prevailed at SC and ISC-SCC’s testified to having participated in multiple events each year; the added exposure appears to be an advantage. Most agree we should offer more such opportunities—real and virtual—throughout the year, so that it’s geographically favorable and possible for more to participate. 

Is ACM-PEARC a candidate for a co-located student competitive training forum? It would offer US students another affordable domestic option, and would augment what the February WC and July virtual Hackathon events foster among students from MSIs. SC21 is planning to offer a menu of competitive options for students; perhaps PEARCXX could, too? 

This panel of international RCD experts has more than 60 years of collective experience with student competitions, and others have been invited. Each will present for 8-10 minutes, followed by a Q&A session for the balance of 90 minutes. Panelists will share lessons learned from managing student competitions, and potential silver linings they’ve observed from facilitating virtual events—a necessity during the global pandemic. Because they’ve been involved with competitions for a decade or more, they have witnessed the longitudinal benefits; some first became engaged as students. Each will share their own career “arcs” and highlight how the experience helped students they’ve mentored.


Elizabeth Leake (STEM-Trek Nonprofit). Elizabeth has worked as an international correspondent and HPC industry external relations and communications specialist since 2008. She has judged the ISC SCC (sponsored by the HPC-AI Advisory Council) since 2017, and recently judged the inaugural Winter Classic SCC. As a research support specialist at UI, she develops grant proposals and serves on the team that supports RCD communications, technology compliance, user support and advanced skills training. Her work with underserved communities was recognized when STEM-Trek received three HPCwire Workforce Diversity Leadership Awards (2016-17 Editors’ Choice, and 2020 Readers’ Choice).   


Aunshul Rege  is an Associate Professor with Temple University where she directs the Cybersecurity in Application, Research and Education (CARE) lab. Her research projects, which focus on critical infrastructure cyberattacks, adversarial behavior and decision-making, and cybersecurity education, have been funded by several National Science Foundation grants. Dr. Rege has developed course projects, competitions, and educator workshops that emphasize the role of social engineering in cyberattacks, thereby incorporating the typically downplayed human factor in cybersecurity discourse. Among NSF-supported competitions she hosts are the “Collegiate Social Engineering Competition” and the :Social Engineering Pen Test.” 

Alexander Nolte is an Associate Professor at the University of Tartu (Estonia) and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA, USA). He received his PhD in Information Systems from the University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany) and worked as a post-doctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University (USA), the University of Pittsburgh (USA) and Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany). He has studied, co-organized, supported, and participated in numerous corporate, entrepreneurial, civic, and scientific hackathons world-wide. His research focuses on understanding and developing means to foster and sustain hackathon outcomes and he perceives them as a great means of attracting newcomers to scientific communities.

Linda Hayden is the Director of the Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Education and Research at Elizabeth City State University. She leads the Workforce Development program for the NSF-SGCI student hackathons during NSF-XSEDE, PEARC (2018, 2019 and 2020), and Supercomputing Conferences (SC’18, 19 and 20). She coordinates student registration, travel, challenge problems, mentors and awards for each event. Dr. Hayden was recognized for her outstanding service to the HPC community when she received the 2003 U.S. NSF Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).

Verónica G. Melesse Vergara Larrea (Oak Ridge National Laboratory; DoE) has more than a decade of experience in the HPC field and is currently Group Leader of User Assistance in the Pre-Production Systems Group at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF). In addition to assisting OLCF users, Verónica is part of the systems testing team, led acceptance for Summit, and is leading acceptance for Frontier, ORNL’s exascale supercomputer. Her research interests include HPC, large-scale system testing, and performance evaluation and optimization of scientific applications. Verónica is a member of IEEE and ACM, and serves on the ACM SIGHPC Executive Committee and the SC Steering Committee.

Je’aime Powell is a Senior System Administrator, NSF-XSEDE Broadening Participation Hackathon Coordinator, Lecturer, Curriculum Development Specialist, and Technical Research Design Analyst at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Powell’s hackathons and STEM-based high school summer camps are welcoming to students from MSIs. He was first exposed to HPC as a grad student through work with the NSF Polar Grid Project, with mentors from Elizabeth City State University (MSI), Indiana University, and the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas. Since then, he has led many hackathons at both PEARC and SC conferences. 

David Macleod is a Principal Engineer and leader of the Advanced Computer Engineering Laboratory at the South African Centre for High Performance Computing. David led the SA National Student Cluster Competition (SCC) program from its establishment in 2012 until 2020. Students from universities across the country compete at the annual CHPC National Conference in early December. From there, a single national team is selected to compete at the International Supercomputing Conference SCC in June. David’s team has developed an open-source, asynchronous training toolkit with cloud-based resources and a social media platform for collaboration. They first competed at the ISC Competition in 2013, and have won four gold, three silver, and one bronze. 

Kurt Keville is a Research Specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and US Dept. of Defense MIT Lincoln Laboratory. His publications focus on energy-efficient HPC platforms and disruptive technology integration in the areas of computer architecture, supercomputing, hardware design and wireless sensor networks. He has mentored many Boston-based collegiate student cluster contest teams at SC, beginning in 2008, and every year since. He has also advised teams at international competitions, including two in China. Kurt also organizes hackathons and bootcamps that are thematically organized to solve a particular pain point in computer science, such as OpenSuperComputing and FOSSi Latchup.


Dan Olds (Intersect360; Winter Classic SCC).

Our 90 minutes will be allocated as follows:

HACKATHON, 15 minutes. Je’aime, Linda and Alexander will talk about their history with PEARC, longitudinal student outcomes (where are the early contenders now?), and how their event is structured.

SC: 15 minutes. Veronica and Kurt will describe their experience with the SC SCC (one from a national lab perspective, and the other from MIT’s point of view). How many student competition contenders went on to work at the lab or MIT? 

ISC/CHPC: 15 minutes. David will talk about his experience with both South African CHPC and ISC SCC contests (focus on longitudinal outcomes with early teams; where are they now?). What goes into establishing a national contest? How did the pandemic affect your ability to train a widely-distributed team/s? 

Winter Classic: 10 minutes. The inaugural, virtual event was held in March 2021; Dan will cover what worked/what didn’t work, and how much he thinks the students learned. What would he do differently next time? Will there be a WC2022, and when will it be scheduled? Dan also has vast experience with SC, CHPC, and ISC (is that all?), and would be an excellent person to chime in on the Q/A for all three events. 

CSEC and Social Engineering Pen Test (cybersecurity competitions): 10 minutes. Aunshul Rege (Temple University) leads two NSF-supported cybersecurity contests called, “Collegiate Social Engineering,” and the “Social Engineering Pen Test.” Since these are newer events, Aunshul can explain how the idea for each event was conceived, and what students have learned. Are there plans for the future, and what are they? 

The balance of time will used for Q&A. 

Panel Starter Questions: 

  • What did we learn from remote participation in 2020-21? 
  • How many students return to the event you manage year after year? 
  • How has participation in competitive events helped student career arcs? 
  • As a student, were you inspired more by opportunities, or people who led you to them?

Additional Historical Context

With in-person contests, travel and equipment expenses are prohibitive for many. Therefore, the proliferation of virtual contests in 2020 made it possible for more students from disadvantaged colleges and universities to participate, which increased diversity within the cohort that will ultimately enter the national workforce pipeline. With the Winter Classic (WC) model, students from minority-serving institutions (MSIs) were coached by experts from organizations that shared compute resources, such as the HPC-AI Advisory Council, Google, and others. That way, it wasn’t necessary for local faculty or staff trainers to lead the effort; some campuses have a skills gap, and most faculty at smaller colleges and universities are spread thin—it’s not uncommon for them to have both advising and teaching responsibilities, with five or more courses each semester. Nor is it necessary for these teams to find financial sponsors—there was no travel, and the compute resources were donated. 

While virtual events are not without problems, organizers may wish to bake such challenges into competitions. We found that when confronted with unexpected hurdles, the more intellectually-curious students often develop ingenious workarounds. For example, when cloud credits were provided, some teams burned through them before they reached their goals. Others developed a virtual machine on a local resource where they performed time-consuming troubleshooting and saved the cloud credits for final proofing. When a real system is provided, competitors from disparate time zones over long distances ran into queue and network bottlenecks. But, again, workarounds were developed that surprised even the judges! Teams that performed best were agile, resourceful and persistent! That tenacity is essential when it comes to solving real world challenges, whether you’re managing clusters, pruning datasets, or helping research faculty optimize workflows. If 2020 taught us anything, it was the importance of being able to ‘pivot’ when encountering things that don’t work the way we think they should. By forcing students to push the envelope outside of their comfort zones, we will forge the next generation of creative innovators. 

PEARC’s intimate scale is comfortable for first-time conference-goers, and all who struggle with crowd anxiety (which may increase post-COVID after more than a year of avoiding crowds). It’s comparable in size to the South African CHPC conference where the student SCC has always been a conference highlight; the student platform is often setup in the middle of the reception area so that all conference-goers see it when they first arrive at the venue. Roughly one third of all conference attendees are students from across the country. The SA government supports student conference travel and lodging; many are from underserved regions. 

Until 2021 when five well-prepared Chinese teams entered the ISC competition (ranking first, third and fourth; Singapore’s Nanyang team ranked second), the SA team had placed in the top three since they began competing at the ISC competition in 2013; they have won four gold, three silver and one bronze. SA student teams also won first prize at the BRICS18 Cyber Security challenge, and BRICS19 Future Skills Challenge and Expo. BRICS is a diplomatic alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China, and SA. Those who have attended that conference for several years may recognize former students who once stood on the SCC winner platform; some now work at the CHPC, and in SA government agencies that use advanced cyberinfrastructure (CI). SA has proved that student competitions are a wise workforce investment.