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DOE's First ‘Intro to HPC’ Bootcamp Focuses on Energy Justice and a New Model for Workforce Development

Broad-based program emphasizes social issues to attract a diverse pool of students to computing sciences

September 13, 2023

By Kathy Kincade

Energy justice and workforce development were the driving themes of the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) first “Introduction to High-Performance Computing (HPC) Bootcamp,” held at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) August 7-11 and hosted by the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), in collaboration with the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF), the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, and the Sustainable Horizons Institute (SHI). The event was funded by the DOE’s Exascale Computing Project (ECP).

Large, diverse group photo of several rows of people standing in the entryway of a building at Berkeley Lab.

Participants in the DOE's Introduction to High-Performance Computing Bootcamp pose together at Berkeley Lab. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)
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This immersive program took a novel approach to HPC training by turning the traditional curriculum upside down. Instead of focusing just on technology and its applications, the boot camp engaged students in energy justice projects, so they learned how to use HPC to answer compelling social impact questions. “Our framework emphasizes social good using project-based pedagogy and real-life science stories to prepare students for internships and future careers at DOE and the national labs,” said SHI Director Mary Ann Leung.

What is Energy Justice?

Energy justice seeks equity in social and economic participation in the energy system to make energy more accessible, affordable, clean, and democratically managed for all communities. Hand in hand with energy justice is environmental justice, which is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

The event was inspired by the DOE Office of Economic Impact and Diversity (ED) and their work implementing the Justice40 Initiative, whose goal is to ensure that at least 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution, said Dr. Anjuli Jain Figueroa, chief of the Office of Energy Justice Analysis Division within the DOE’s ED. “We need democratic participation to ensure our energy systems work for everyone,” she said during her keynote address at the boot camp.

A diverse group of men and women of different ethnicities thoughtfully watch a presentation from their auditorium seats.

Participants listen to a panel discussion. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

Some 60 students – many with little to no background in HPC – and ten peer mentors from schools across the United States participated in the five-day instructional event, which also included a tour of the NERSC facility and the Perlmutter supercomputer. Participants received hands-on experience working with state-of-the-art computational and data science tools and techniques to explore issues related to the social impact of modern-day energy challenges, such as climate risk, solar power, sustainable cities, and energy usage.

Many people standing and observing supercomputing racks at NERSC.

A NERSC machine room tour was one of the boot camp's highlights. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

“Attendees found their time at Berkeley Lab extremely worthwhile, both for the insights into the power of HPC and for the insights you derive into the linked social and technological challenges of the Justice40 Initiative – issues like climate change and renewable energy,” said Jonathan Carter, Associate Laboratory Director for Computing Sciences at Berkeley Lab. “The solutions we design and implement must have a more equitable impact across society than the rewards of previous scientific endeavors.”

“The level of student engagement was especially gratifying to see, as we envision the boot camp participants in our future workforce,” said Sreeranjani “Jini” Ramprakash, Deputy Director of the ALCF and lead initiator of the Introduction to HPC thrust of ECP’s Broadening Participation Initiative, which was established in 2022 to build a more diverse workforce in computing sciences and foster an inclusive professional environment and culture throughout the DOE national lab community.

Diversifying Participation in HPC

The boot camp approach is one of three programs within the Broadening Participation Initiative. The DOE has long recognized that recruiting and retaining HPC employees from a variety of cultures and backgrounds is a challenge that must be addressed for the national labs to successfully execute their missions and expand their workforce, noted Lois Curfman McInnes, lead organizer of the ECP Broadening Participation Initiative and a senior computational scientist in the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory. Representatives from the ECP’s Task Force on Broadening Participation began meeting in 2021 to exchange information and develop an overarching plan to attract underrepresented groups in STEM and HPC.

A caucasian man, a Black woman, and an Asian woman discuss computing topics.

The boot camp featured hands-on breakout sessions that enabled participants to address specific challenges in energy justice. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

“Events like this, with a joint social justice and computing focus, broaden our workforce by introducing HPC to a more diverse range of students, many of whom may be majoring in non-computing fields,” said Suzanne Parete-Koon, HPC engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who led a panel discussion on how HPC advances scientific discovery. “These efforts ultimately expand the types of problems we could solve using HPC.”

In addition to plenary presentations and panel discussions, the boot camp at Berkeley Lab featured hands-on breakout sessions that enabled participants to address specific challenges in energy justice and learn how HPC can be used in this process, such as working with geographic information systems to enhance data-driven analysis and decision making on a regional basis.

“The students worked together in groups on one of seven projects, supported by their peer mentor and project leads,” said Paige Kinsley, education outreach lead at Argonne and one of the boot camp organizers. For example, students who participated in Project 7 (understanding the relationships between power outages and the socioeconomics of a specific region) used the Perlmutter system to learn about the data analysis tools needed to look at trends in one region of the US. They then applied those tools more broadly, expanding the focus of their data analysis beyond one region to multiple states and layered other variables, such as demographic information, to better understand who was impacted.

Seven men and women of different ethnicities compute on laptops as a group.

Attendees worked together in groups supported by peer mentors and project leads. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

“I’m happy that NERSC was able to host this event at Berkeley Lab,” said Rebecca Hartman-Baker, one of the organizers and lead of NERSC’s User Engagement Group. “It was a great opportunity for us because NERSC and Berkeley Lab are committed to energy justice, expanding the reach of HPC to new communities, and developing a diverse workforce.”

The collaboration between Berkeley, Argonne, and Oak Ridge was made possible by a major effort involving multiple staff from each facility, said Helen He, NERSC training lead, who was among those instrumental in organizing the on-site and technical logistics. “We appreciated all the support, from the core team working on activities, presentations, and projects to upper lab management and staff welcoming and sharing their own HPC career paths, to others contributing to machine room tours, panels, social programs, Perlmutter support, and more.”

Looking ahead, the organizers are working to refine this model and expand its reach through other modalities, such as academic curricula and online learning, especially engaging students from underrepresented communities and beyond. “Through events like this, students address some of the energy grand challenges facing their generation while learning HPC methods,” said Ramprakash. “During the boot camp, their questions demonstrated a keen interest in the work performed at DOE national labs and a new awareness of the long-term research careers that DOE advanced computing facilities make possible.”

A post-event survey reflects this. The survey was distributed electronically to 60 participants at the conclusion of the boot camp, and 54 responded. The survey included both qualitative and quantitative items related to participants’ satisfaction with the boot camp, as well as the perceived impact on their technical skills, understanding of energy justice, and future research or career attainment. Preliminary feedback indicates that by focusing on project-based HPC for energy justice topics, the boot camp captured the interest of a wide range of students from underrepresented groups, exposing them to the power of applying HPC to challenges in science and society. Participants also indicated interest in pursuing a career in HPC or energy justice, as well as at a DOE lab.

Three women of different ethnicities and cultures joyfully discuss computing over their laptops.

Students share a light moment during the DOE's Introduction to HPC Bootcamp. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

“Our whole reason for pioneering this innovative approach is to create easy on-ramps to DOE labs through HPC training, internships, and, ultimately, careers, with a long-term goal of diversifying and strengthening our workforce,” said McInnes.

About NERSC and Berkeley Lab
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility that serves as the primary high-performance computing center for scientific research sponsored by the Office of Science. Located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the NERSC Center serves more than 7,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities researching a wide range of problems in combustion, climate modeling, fusion energy, materials science, physics, chemistry, computational biology, and other disciplines. Berkeley Lab is a DOE national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy. »Learn more about computing sciences at Berkeley Lab.