Los Alamos middle-schoolers finish strong

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By Roger Snodgrass

Despite a few hurdles, Rachel Robey and Gabe Montoya captured third prize out of 61 teams in the N.M. Supercomputer Challenge this year.

For one thing, they were from Los Alamos Middle School. They were middle-schoolers up against tough high-school competition, not to mention increasingly proficient elementary school participants as well.

That didn’t stop Robey last year, when she was working with another partner, from taking the second prize overall. And it didn’t stop Robey and Montoya this year from getting into the first flight of finalists, picked primarily by the conceptual strength of the writing and calculations of their project paper.

They took on one of the most vital global issues of our time, having to do with household energy efficiency. It was an important subject, as they said, for both environmental and economical reasons.

Household space heating and cooling, according to one of the 30 graphical figures they supplied in their final report, account for 43 percent of residential energy use.

Among the factors influencing the energy efficiency in a home are those having to do with the walls that enclose the space.

Good wall design, they deduced, would surely hold a key to future energy savings. Their project proposed a model that would quickly provide performance measures for various designs.

“It’s a flexible program that can simulate any wall design in any climate,” Montoya said.

They carried it a step farther and built a related experimental model that was used to verify the computer model.

Despite a lot of guesswork, “there were some amazing results,” they reported. “The inside temperature from our computational model closely matches the temperatures from the experimental model.”

Simply being in the first group of finalists was an achievement.

They were building on the work that had been done the year before, “an extension” to the project, they called it. Most, if not all the other projects were new.

One of the evaluation criteria having to do with their “level of effort” accounted for 10 percent of the total score. If they were leveraging last year’s program, the judges would have to try to figure out how much of the project was accomplished this year.

Responding to this challenge Robey and Montoya made it clear that they had made fundamental progress with the new work making it applicable to any wall, adding new features and overcoming previous time limitations.

The experimental model was a nice touch, but some judges might have thought it added directly to the computational aspects of the challenge, a criterion that counted for 20 percent of the total weight.

They said they had found most of the bugs in their program, but the judges grilled them on their mathematical equations and particularly on some of the findings they couldn’t explain.

They must have scored well in teamwork and presentation, as they both seemed to understand how their project worked from top to bottom. They pitched the narrative back and forth with the wit and confidence of television news anchors. They seemed fully in control of their delivery.

But they were first in the morning. Sometimes judges start low and then become more generous throughout the day. There were subjective elements and other intangibles that were hard to predict, perhaps counterbalanced by the large number of judges who were involved in the evaluation.

Five more teams were picked during the morning’s poster session, whose presentations were judged in the afternoon.

David Kratzer of LANL’s High Performance Comuting Systems coordinates the challenge.

This year’s challenge starting with over 300 participants. Some dropped out along the way.

“There’s always attrition, but life happens,” Kratzer said, “and they learn whether they finish or not.

Supercomputer Challenge

First prize – Team 4, La Cueva High School, for “A novel approach to Asteroid Identification Using Image Processing of Existing Data.” Team member Erika DeBenedictis won her third first prize in three years; Tony Huang, his second first in two years, along with newcomer Chris Hong Project Mentor was Dr. Erik DeBenedictis.

Second prize – Team 66, Manzano High School for “Elliptic Curve Computations.” Team members: Kristin Cordwell and Chen Zhao; Teacher Stephen Schum; Project Mentor William Cordwell.

Third prize – Team 65, Los Alamos Middle School; Team members: Rachel Robey and Gabe Montoya; Teacher Bob Dryja; Project Mentor Bob Robey and Derrick Montoya.

More awards will appear in Wednesday’s paper.