Virginia School Finds 'Super' Prize's Uses Multiply

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Annandale, Va.--Manish Tuteja began charting the realms of abstract higher mathematics with a deceptively simple goal. "I wanted to see if I could make some pretty pictures," he says with a wry grin.

But what the 17-year-old senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology here was actually embarked upon was an intellectual exercise seeking to reduce to an image on a computer screen mathematical concepts that have, he admits, "been avoided by science for a long time."

He was able to abstract his theory in a paper, titled "Complex Plane Analyses of the Newton-Raphson on High Order Polynomials."

Yet hours of calculations performed on his personal computer produced only a single image that he says "was not very accurate."

Manish had reached an apparent dead end in his research.

Million-Dollar Prize

Then, a year ago, came the announcement that eta Systems, the Minnesota-based subsidiary of the Control Data Corporation, was offering a "supercomputer," a highly sophisticated, million-dollar calculating machine, as first prize in a national computing contest.

Manish and three other students from the two-year-old magnet school for students with special aptitudes for scientific, mathematical, and technical ability were chosen to join one of three teams the school would field in the contest.

About nine months later, Manish, his fellow team members, and others in the school were developing projects far beyond the capacity of most similarly gifted students with the fruits of their competitive labors, a newly arrived eta10-p supercomputer.

With the eta10-p, Manish said last week, he can sketch his images "10 times larger and 100 times more accurately in less than 30 minutes.''

Tools for Learning

Supercomputers, sometimes referred to as "number crunchers," are the tools of engineers, molecular physicists, and cryptographers, those who can harness the machine's ability to process millions--in the case of the eta10, 375 million--of calculations per second.

Researchers at Purdue University used a supercomputer to determine the composition of the virus responsible for the common cold. And at the National Security Agency, the country's most sophisticated intelligence-gathering organization,4many such machines are used to decipher elaborate codes.

Small wonder that Donald W. Hyatt, laboratory director for the school's computer-science center and a coach for the Thomas Jefferson team, was at first skeptical that such a device would ever be awarded to a high-school science lab.

"We said, 'A supercomputer for a high school? That sounds very strange,"' he recalled.

But, tantalized by the prospect, teachers and students at Thomas Jefferson joined squads from more than 1,000 other schools in "Superquest, the High-School Supercomputing Challenge."

In August, students from the high school traveled to Minnesota for a summer institute, where they and participants from three other finalist schools, including Montgomery Blair High School in nearby Silver Spring, Md., ran their projects on a supercomputer.

"I was concerned that we were going to be spending seven weeks in cutthroat competition with a million-dollar prize hanging in the balance," said Mr. Hyatt.

Instead, students worked in a collegial atmosphere with the help of a team of 20 scientific mentors. At the end of the session, a panel of judges headed by the Nobel Laureate Kenneth Wilson selected the Thomas Jefferson projects as the winning entry.

According to Mr. Hyatt, the judges said that the quality of the projects "were comparable to graduate-level research."

Media Spotlight

In addition to the eta10, and a guarantee from the company to operate the system free of charge for two years, the school also captured a bonanza of media attention for their accomplishment, Mr. Hyatt said.

Stories about the students have appeared in several national publications, and even now, almost two months later, requests for interviews continue at a rate of "about one a week," said the laboratory director.

Not all the attention has been welcome, however. Mr. Hyatt said that one publication reported incorrectly that the school intended to sell time on the machine to local government.

In fact, Mr. Hyatt said, the school is bound by the rules of the contest to use the supercomputer strictly for educational purposes during the initial two years.

Work Called 'Phenomenal'

For their part, students said the machine frees their minds to consider mathematical problems that formerly would have been well beyond their range of contemplation.

"You never really start conceptualizing problems that you can run on the supercomputer until you have one," said David Rosen, a member of the winning team who is also a 17-year-old senior.

Without the speed and efficiency of the sophisticated machine, he said, "you're so bogged down by the details of the problem that you can't concentrate on the concept itself."

David's "Super Quest" project allowed him to study how computers decide how to allocate time to satisfy individual users. While that may sound to the uninformed like a relatively simple problem, he said, it can only be deciphered by a machine able to perform simultaneously the number of operations the supercomputer can.

Another team member, Eric Sheirer, 17, studied the forces that determine the behavior of a star orbiting a binary sun. The results of his research may have practical applications in a number of fields, he said.

"The projects that these kids come up with are just phenomenal," said Mr. Hyatt, who holds a master's degree in computer science. "In 20 years, I wonder which of these kids will win a Nobel prize."

Network Proposed

Mr. Hyatt said that students on the school's other "Super Quest" teams are being groomed for future competition. About 45 students are presently using the machine, either in computer-science courses or in one of the 11 other technical labs the school offers.

Mr. Hyatt also said that plans are under way to link the machine with Montgomery Blair High School and the two other finalists in the competition, North Florida Christian School in Tallahassee, Fla., and James Logan High School in Union City, Calif., to create an educational network.

He has suggested to the contest sponsors, he said, that next year's ''Super Quest"--to be open to schools outside the United States--include in the prize the costs of establishing such a network.

"In the future, hopefully, the winning team will house the machine as a 'regional resource,"' he said.

Vol. 08, Issue 15

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