Supercomputing standouts

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Los Alamos High School freshmen and sophomores earn high marks in competition

By Carol A. Clark

Two four–student teams from Los Alamos High School captured second and third place in the 20th New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge hosted by Los Alamos National Laboratory.


“The Holy Grail of Adam’s Ale” received second place. The Los Alamos High School team of Gabriel Montoya, Rachel Robey, Orli Shlachter and Orion Staples each received $500 for the second-place research project, which used geostatistics, a branch of applied statistics, to find aquifers and other groundwater sources. Robey and Montoya took third place in last year’s challenge for their project on energy efficiency through smart wall design.

“We started working on the project the beginning of this school year but had our team pretty much chosen at this time last year,” Staples, 15, said. “Rachel had won second and third place in seventh and eighth grade respectively so I thought we had a really good chance … about half way through we felt we would win second or third …I was pretty surprised but the biggest surprise came when we won best visualization and best technical poster. My mom was there through the whole thing and this was probably one of the biggest things I ever won so she was pretty ecstatic.”

Montoya, 15, described his feelings when he realized his team had won. “It felt excellent, it felt amazing because all of our hard work all year finally paid off,” he said.

The team met every week for two or three hours.

“When we had one of the stages come up such as the interim report or final report we’d work the whole day,” Shlachter, 15, said. “I was pretty impressed that we managed to win but not really surprised because we worked really hard and really well together.”

Robey, 15, explained that the team learned a lot of new material during the months they worked on the project.

“We were using some new programming languages, so learning that was kind of difficult,” she said. “It was exciting winning, there were a lot of other really good projects so it was an honor and it was nice to be recognized for such a big amount of work.”

By winning the Best Technical Poster Award, the team’s poster will be used on the front cover for the 2009-10 final reports book, which will be published this fall during the kickoff for the 2010-11 Supercomputing Challenge.

The team also received $150 for winning the Visualization Award from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

The third-place team winners were LAHS sophomore students Peter Ahrens, Stephanie Djidjev, Vickie Wang and Mei Lui.

Their project, “To Kill a Flocking Bird” captured the third-place prize. The project explored techniques used to optimize the parameters of flocking, a phenomenon frequently exhibited by birds during migration; animals such as elephants who flock to protect smaller, weaker members; and also in humans. Each student received

$250 for their project.

Recalling his reaction to winning, Ahrens, 15, said, “It was a lot of disbelief, I was really excited, I did not expect this to happen.”

Ahrens’ team also received the Best Internet Research Prize, with a $500 cash award, from the Council for Higher Education Computing/Communication Services. They also garnered the New Mexico Network for Women in Science and Engineering award for best project with a majority of women team members and shared the Visualization Award with the second-place team from Los Alamos High. The award comes with $150.

Students presented their research to a team of volunteer judges on Monday at LANL’s  J. Robert Oppenheimer Study Center and discussed poster displays of their computing projects. They toured the laboratory’s supercomputing centers and heard talks and saw demonstrations by LANL researchers.

A trio of students from Melrose High School captured the top prize. The report, “Control and Spread of Wildfires II” by brothers Richard and Randall Rush and Kyle Jacobs built upon previous research by the team and added a new variable, topography, to the computer model as a factor contributing to the behavior of wildfire.

A total of $62,700 in individual scholarships, $50,000 from the laboratory’s Computer, Computational and Statistical Sciences Division, were awarded Tuesday.

More than 250 students representing 70 teams from schools around the state spent this school year researching scientific problems, developing sophisticated computer programs and learning about computer science with mentors from the state’s national laboratories and other organizations.

The goal of the yearlong event is to teach teams of middle- and high-school students how to use powerful computers to analyze, model and solve real-world problems.

Participating students improve their understanding of technology by developing skills in scientific inquiry, modeling, computing, communications and teamwork.

The Supercomputing Challenge is sponsored by Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories and the state of New Mexico in conjunction with a large number of educational partners.

To read all the student reports from the challenge, visit www.challenge.nm.org/finalreports.