All-girl Freshman Team Wins New Mexico High School Supercomputing Contest

By Elizabeth B. Guerard, Assistant Editor, eSchool News

When three freshman girls snagged the top prize in a New Mexico supercomputing contest on April 26, it underscored the potency of using real-world problem solving to inspire achievement among students who recognize no pre-conceived limits on their potential.

For the 10th straight year, the New Mexico High School Supercomputing Challenge sponsored by the Los Alamos National Laboratory let high school students across the state work in teams of from two to five students to come up with a project, do research, interact with mentors, search the internet, and create scientific projects that can be solved by the lab's high-speed computers.

And for the all-girl freshman team from the private Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque winning this year' top prize broke new ground.

"We've had other teams place in the top six, but this is our first First Place, and it happens to be a group of three freshman girls. They've just done so well," said Neil McBeth, Supercomputing Challenge advisor and teacher at Sandia Prep.

Students in 86 teams from 42 schools proposed projects that need a supercomputer's power. During the school year, students learned to program in languages such as Fortran, Java, HTML, and C++.

Sandia Prep freshmen Carli McGee, Heather Wood, and Joan Goldsworthy each received a $1,000 savings bond "the grand prize" for creating a program that helps sort infected cells with lasers. Their teachers, McBeth and Jori Bowen, received a computer loaded with software for their classrooms.

The girls' winning project was called "Pattern Analysis of High Throughput Flow Cytometry Data."

"They created a program that decreased the time it takes to refine and analyze flow-cytometry data. Decreasing the time it takes to analyze this type of data frees up humans to concentrate on the important research they are doing," said David Kratzer, co-coordinator of the Challenge.

"No freshman team has ever won, and we're the first Sandia Prep team and the first all-girls team to win," Goldsworthy said.

Winning projects were evaluated on their complexity and how well their computer code worked.

"The girls have been working on this since last summer, actually, when Carli McGee was working at the UNM [University of New Mexico] lab. A profuse amount of data had to be categorized by hand before this program. The work that once took two hours to do by hand now takes two minutes with the software these girls created," McBeth said.

The Sandia Prep team worked throughout the school year with a mentor from the University of New Mexico, Larry Sklar, who is doing research similar to what the girls programmed. Sklar, a professor of Pathology at UNM's Health Science Center and co-director of the National Flow Cytometry Resource at Los Alamos, was instrumental in helping the girls focus their attentions.

"The problem was an interesting one, and they came up with an elegant solution using very few lines of code. They refined the problem to something manageable," Sklar said.

Once the software had been coded, McGee, Wood, and Goldsworthy had to pool their resources to put together a 25-30 minute presentation on their work. "We had a lot of sleepovers, getting everything together near the end," Goldsworthy said.

"I'm always impressed with these kids, but the best teams are not full of hacker-types. A good Challenge team has one member who can research, one who can write, an organizer, a public speaker, a motivator, and a programmer," said Kratzer.

According to Goldsworthy, learning the complex computer language C++ was all in a day's work. "It's kind of hard to learn, but I actually liked it, so that's why I invested so much time in it," she said.

Because of their work on the project, the girls said they have been asked to be lab aides this summer at the University of New Mexico and at Sandia National Laboratories.

"Their work is currently being tested at the University of New Mexico's Department of Pathology, and thus far they are very impressed with the program," McBeth said.

"We think [the girls' software] is likely to be useful to our staff here at UNM, either as a primary or a secondary tool for analysis," said Sklar.

The science and education communities agree that programs like the Supercomputer Challenge are a boon to education and the community as a whole.

"The competition promotes computer literacy by requiring students to use computers at a remote site through programming, eMail, and research as part of the project," said Kratzer.

Sklar agreed: "I think more important than the programming is working as a team to define a problem, solve it, and report on the solution to the problem. The process is key. And, to me, it was very useful to work with this group of girls who had no preconceived notions about what they can or can't do."

"In New Mexico, we have problems educating and retaining people for industry, and we need to find optimal ways of using these programs to benefit the people who live here," he added.

The program has been around for ten years, and there have been just over 5,000 student participants in that time. This year, nearly 350 students participated.

"The number one benefit to the kids is just being able to do this stuff," McBeth said.

"Feedback has been very positive. People have had a lot of positive things to say about how great the program is," Kratzer added.


Los Alamos National Laboratory Advanced Computing Lab

New Mexico High School Supercomputing Challenge

Sandia Preparatory School

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