[Beowulf] about clusters in high schools

Jim Lux James.P.Lux at jpl.nasa.gov
Fri Jan 27 13:42:00 PST 2006

Most excellent... another good philosophical topic to discuss.

At 10:06 AM 1/27/2006, Robert G. Brown wrote:
>On Thu, 26 Jan 2006, Brian D. Ropers-Huilman wrote:
>>Hash: RIPEMD160
>>My first cut response, not the RGB 'bot response, which I'm sure will be
>>full of excellent anecdotes, is: absolutely.
>Absolutely indeed.
>My "excellent anecdotes" on this subject are basically derived from:

> From this, there is good news and bad news.
>The good news is that bright kids DO like to build beowulves in high
>school (including in schools in e.g. India, not just in the US!).  In
>nearly any school you'd have 5-15 students who would be perfectly happy
>to immerse themselves in it and have a great time doing so with ANYTHING
>like encouragement.
>The bad news is that the ones who succeed generally do so without any
>meaningful support from their school.  Sometimes not even with access to
>school-owned machines as a resource.  Almost never with anything like
>mentorship within the school itself.  They scrounge machines themselves.
>They find switches.  They learn about linux (usually from me telling
>them EXACTLY how to install a functional version for free on their
>scrounged hardware).  They find toy problems to play with.  Then alas,
>they graduate and move on, leaving very little that survives or might be
>used to turn into a "program".

This is true of lots of things, not just HPC.  It would be the same for 
robotics, etc., or anything that is not in the "core objectives" for the 
school, which by and large are:
"Graduate students" and "provide athletic events for community entertainment"

A basic truism is that if it's single (or small group) of student 
originated, it will not survive the student leaving, particularly if it's 
all the same grade level.  But hey, the exact same thing is true at the 
undergrad and graduate level, right?  How many grad students create a 
"program" that endures their departure?  Sourceforge is FULL of such 
things, some even dealing with HPC.

>Why so bleak a picture?
>Well, for one thing Windows overwhelmingly dominates as the OS installed
>in most schools.  It is so pernicious a phenomenon that they don't teach
>"spreadsheets", they teach "using Excel".  They don't qualify students
>with an end of grade test on "word processing", they qualify students
>with a test on "using Microsoft word".  That this is Evil beyond all
>measure is beyond any doubt -- imagine the screams if one had to take
>all drivers tests in a state using a Ford.  On the other hand, the
>schools are crippled by the near-vacuum in computer competent teachers
>in general -- it is doing as much as they can to end up with somebody
>that can teach "using Word" or "using Excel" as part of "keyboarding".

There was an excellent article in "The American Scholar" 
(http://www.pbk.org/pubs/amscholar.htm) a few years back about how industry 
has hoodwinked the public school system (including at the collegiate level) 
into providing free training for their software.

But, to return to the point at hand.. generic skills are not in the "core 
objective":  graduating useful toilers for the community.

>Note that few schools even have a local systems administrator.  They
>hire out all of the management of the school's networks to an outside
>contractor, who locks down everything and is responsible for securing
>everything and is MOST NEGATIVE about the thought of kids building a
>supercomputer system "inside" the school's network where it could wreak
>untold mischief.  A point of view I'm not totally negative toward, by
>the way.

And, in fact, given that schools, particularly public schools, are 
lightning rods for any sort of controversy, they take a very, very 
defensive attitude.  No principal wants to be known as the one who "let 
that child pornography ring use the school computer lab for servers".  They 
also don't have a heck of a lot of money to spend. (as in, zero, zip, zilch).

In any case, for "advanced" students, there is typically not much money 
available.  The Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program in California 
(restricted to the top 2% of students) has something like $2/student/year 
available.  More funding to support top students isn't very politically 
attractive, even though it IS necessary.

>Even the relatively progressive schools that DO know what linux is, that
>DO have a faculty person with some experience in linux (rarely
>"professional grade" experience, unless the person involved is a true
>saint, as anybody with pro grade experience can make 3-4x the salary of
>a high school teacher without even trying hard),

Perhaps 3x-4x entry level, but someone with a some number of years of 
experience as a teacher is making $50K/yr. 
In fact, picking a couple local school districts near where I live and work 
we have:
La Canada (way upscale, where JPL is) 38,520 start, 61,797 avg, 60,450 for 
BA+60 units  (for 185 dys/yr)
Conjeo Valley (Thousand Oaks, high SES) 36,732 start, 58,419 avg, 59,764 BA+60

Entire state of CA: 35,135 lowest, 56,444 avg, 53,804 BA+60
Even districts with very low average family incomes don't have salaries 
that are a lot lower.  (The low income has other effects.. more is spent on 
supplemental programs for remediation).

>  don't have the LEVEL of
>experience in networking and supercomputing to be able to support a
>beowulf program meaningfully.  That's what the Wake Tech thing showed
>me.  Teachers from schools would need e.g. community colleges LIKE WTCC
>with programs where they could teach the teachers, before there will
>ever BE any teachers that can teach this as a course or part of a
>meaningful high school experience with some continuity.

This is true in many areas.  My mother (a retired 
teacher,principal,assistant supt) is involved in a program to improve math 
education at all levels, but especially elementary, and it's a lot of work. 
We find this peculiarly ironic, since she was a sociology major in school, 
and now probably has an Erdos number of 3, since she's been working with a 
bunch of mathemeticians.  Collective bargaining for teachers has had a lot 
of unintended side effects, and one of them is that it makes it hard to do 
things not directly tied to the curriculum and core objectives.  Union shop 
stewards and politically active members (a small, but vocal percentage) 
take a dim view of workers doing more hours than contractually obligated, 
especially if they are uncompensated, which means that "enrichment" kinds 
of things (training how to build beowulves, for instance) have to come out 
of paid time (in some form), and there's precious little extra available.

>The long term solution to the problem, perhaps, is to do what Doug and I
>and many others have been working on for years -- create a sufficiently
>robust and strong set of web based resources, including the PEOPLE (many
>of whom are on this list) who are able and willing to act as mentors, as
>teachers of teachers, as supporters of CC programs to formally train
>teachers -- that one can bootstrap the process, where any bright student
>CAN build a beowulf at a school, where a faculty person working with
>them CAN learn about linux and supercomputing in the process, where
>there IS a chance that a program can be born out of the experience.

But.. that just makes it less expensive overall, but doesn't address the 
core problem, which is that you need to have an "enduring program" of HPC 
(or robotics, or couture, or auto repair), and to do that, you need to have 
MONEY on an enduring basis at the district level.  Doesn't take a lot of 
money, but it has to be there.  Very, very few schools will do away with a 
program that has any money associated with it, even for what seems to be 
de-minimis amounts, especially if it has a multi-year commitment.  That 
money could pay for a few hundred dollars as a stipend for a teacher (who 
would then be compensated, however trivially, for their extra work, getting 
out from the union problem).

So, get that endowment fund going.

I keep hoping that we see more of this, but I also recognize that the
>obstacles are still pretty significant.  Ultimately it may be the
>parents, or changing the way the Government recognizes "standards", that
>drives a movement to linux in schools and the consequently greater
>degree of learning about systems that would enable.  I see that
>happening in Europe and Asia, but not (alas) so much here...

Jim Lux

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