Tom Murphy isn’t one of those teachers who thinks the best way to get students to learn is to pack their heads full of ideas and concepts. Instead, he’d rather have his students figure out the best ways to pack powerful computing systems into briefcases, suitcases and small shipping boxes.
As a computer science professor at Contra Costa College, a community college 15 minutes from Berkeley and an hour from Silicon Valley and Stanford, Murphy has come up with a number of innovative approaches to teaching his students about high performance computing.
Several years ago, Murphy had his students working to cram as many processors, mother boards and other components as possible into an attaché case in a quest to build the world’s most powerful laptop. The project was more successful as a teaching tool, but it set the tone for future efforts.
The current projects include LittleFe and LittleAl. The thinking is that, since students at community colleges rarely have access to parallel computing systems, one workaround is to have them build their own. LittleFe is a complete 6-node, Beowulf-style portable computational cluster which supports shared memory parallelism Weighing in under 50 pounds, LittleFe easily travels via checked baggage on airlines and sets up in 10 minutes wherever there is a 110/220 VAC outlet. The cost? Under $3,000.
LittleAl is a bit smaller and is designed to fit into an aluminum attaché case. When Murphy qualified as an Intel Black Belt Software Developer, he asked for four Xeon motherboards instead of the customary laptop gift of recognition. Those four quad-core boards are now being fitted into the suitcase by his students.
To establish the Guinness record for the world¹s most powerful portable computer, the goal is to come up with a mini-cluster that weighs under four kilograms and can run for 30 minutes on its own power.
Making the Leap into Teaching
Although Murphy felt he always wanted to teach, Contra Costa College was exactly the locale he had in mind. The college straddles the cities of Richmond and San Pablo, two rough-and-tumble communities that are more likely to make headlines for their crime rates than their educational gains.
“At first, based on all the things I’d heard, the community scared me,” he admits. “But, once I got here, I realized I could be pretty effective, even as an old white guy.” The college, one of the most diverse in California, has a student body that is 25 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Asian. Just under two-thirds of the students are women. About 60 percent of the students finished high school and you can hear up to 50 different languages spoken on the rolling hills of the campus.
Murphy began teaching 10 years ago after leaving Silicon Graphics. While at SGI, he avoided the frequent rounds of layoffs in the late 1990s, striving to keep his job long enough to put his own kids through school. “I always wanted to teach. So, with one child left in college, I decided to step off the cliff and hope I either landed on safe ground or learned to fly.”
Community colleges, he says, are where the rubber hits the road in helping to help students improve themselves. It can be a challenge, he admits. When he taught beginning algebra, many of his students hated being there, convinced that they couldn’t do math. “But by the end of the term, most of them realize they really are competent at math.”
Michial Green II came to Contra Costa College after dropping out of Oakland Technical High School. He credits Murphy will helping him succeed.
“I really like his teaching style, and he explains a lot about the industry, giving us the inside story behind the products we get to use,” Green said. “His project-oriented approach to learning has really helped me a lot, from learning about requirements, then constraints, and working within those constraints.”
Murphy’s goal with the computer science program is to prepare students who want to go on and transfer to schools like UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University or one of the other four-year schools in the area.
“I redefined our courses by figuring out what the other schools were doing in the lower-division classes,” The CCC curriculum now includes four computer science classes: Fundamentals of Computer Science (C++), Data Structures and Algorithms, Introduction to Programming – LISP, and Computer Structure and Organization. Complementing these are four math classes: Analytic Geometry and Calculus I and II, Discreet Math and Introduction to Linear Algebra.
“I will always teach them the material of the course, what I really try to teach my students is to how to use their textbooks, to foster a problem-solving approach to finding solutions,” Murphy said.
In addition to the classes, Murphy has helped his students create several clubs. That way they can meet, discuss and work on projects they’re interested in — without worrying about a grade. The current clubs are the Graphics and Gaming Guild, Parallel Programming Club, Anime Club and Computational Math Club. In the works is “Sisterhood of CS,” a group to support women students taking computer science classes.
Teaching Teachers Too
Each year, Murphy participates in the Education Program at the SC Conference. At SC11 in Seattle, he’s one of the group of presenters in the Parallel track, which will be introducing high school and college teachers to such HPC concepts as The Storage Hierarchy, Introduction to MPI Point-to-Point Communication, Shared Memory Parallel Programming using OpenMP, Parallel Debugging, MPI Collective Communication, Parallel Paradigms and Decompositions, Bootable Cluster CD, Introduction to Accelerators and GPGPU, and CUDA Programming Part I and II.
He also helps run the student programming competition in which groups of students have eight hours to solve as many different and carefully crafted computer science problems as they can.
Murphy also helps with the summer sessions offered by the SC Education Program. Examples include “LittleFe Build Events” held in Norman, Oklahoma, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
And this year at SC11, Murphy is putting on a LittleFe Buildout as part of the Education Program. Conference attendees interested in seeing how it’s done are invited to drop by the Communities booth across from Registration in the South Lobby of the Washington State Convention Center. Starting Sunday afternoon, and every morning and afternoon on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, two teams at a time will be building LittleFe units, which they’ll then be able to take home with them for use as portable platforms for both teaching at their institutions and outreach to other institutions.
His next idea might even be more ambitious. Some of his students have already been adapting technology from the Nintendo Wii gaming system to the classroom. Green presented a poster on a “Wii-mote Infrared Electronic Whiteboard” at the 2011 Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference. Green admits he was intimidated at first, trying to get information from a remote device. But he learned he didn’t need to reinvent the wheel and built on the work of others looking into the same problem.
Now, Murphy and his students are looking into whether Wii avatars could be combined with distance learning curricula to create a virtual classroom with all students represented by interactive avatars.
Wherever he’s teaching, Murphy brings his same level of dedication and drive to the sessions.
“What I have to do with my curriculum is dovetail it to the schools around us and ensure that my students can survive and succeed,” he said with a hint of a smile. “And I need to ensure that the level of academic bloodshed in transferring to a four-year school is not so great that the student drops out.”
Green, who hopes to transfer to UC Berkeley, is glad that Murphy has been pushing him to learn parallel programming before he enters a four-year program and keeping him focused.
“People like Mr. Murphy keep me looking at my goals,” Green said, “and help keep me from getting bogged down in the day-to-day work.”