U.Va. Wins $700,000 NASA Grant for Intensive Computing Summer School

Twenty graduate and undergraduate students from around the country will come to the University of Virginia for nearly three weeks this summer as part of a new three-year, $700,000 NASA grant to provide training in high-performance computing and software engineering.

The purpose is to help the space agency cultivate and recruit young environmental scientists with the higher-end computing skills needed to conduct studies using so-called “big data” and advanced software. As research becomes increasingly complex – such as climate studies that use reams of space satellite data and sophisticated computer models – scientists need to have computing skills that surpass the normal skill-set in their scientific fields.

“NASA is anticipating the retirement of senior scientists and is creating ways to prepare a new crop of young scientists for work with the agency,” said Hank Shugart, William W. Corcoran Professor of Environmental Sciences and principal investigator on the NASA grant.

The program is called the Intensive Summer School for Computing in Environmental Sciences and it is modeled on programs already in place at U.Va. Those programs, sponsored and operated by UVACSE – the U.Va. Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering – help students, staff and faculty improve their skills in computing and software programming for a range of fields, including the social sciences and humanities as well as the natural sciences and engineering.

“When I looked at the NASA request for proposals, I realized we were well-equipped to compete for the grant because we already have in place a concrete curriculum for teaching these skills,” said Katherine Holcomb, a research computing specialist at UVACSE. She wrote the proposal with Shugart, won the grant and is serving as the scientific principal investigator.

The two investigators said the summer school will be highly useful to NASA and the students, who will make valuable connections with space agency mentors who will serve as course instructors along with Holcomb and her UVACSE colleagues. Two of those NASA mentors, Temilola Fatoyinbo and Amber Soja, are U.Va. environmental sciences alumni.

“U.Va. is leading a sea change in the use of computational modeling to gain new insights into the behavior of complex environmental systems,” said Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research. “The next generation of young people entering this field will benefit greatly from this new computational training, and they in turn will make a positive impact on our planet.”

The summer school will be held from May 29 to June 14. The students will be taught basic programming and software engineering with an emphasis on using these tools for environmental sciences. They also will study advanced visualization, compiled computer languages and parallel computing. A few U.Va. environmental sciences students will participate as well.

“The environmental sciences are getting more complex and we really need people who both understand the science and the principles of applications programming for computer models,” Shugart said.

The students will receive housing, meals and a stipend through the grant, which U.Va. administers. Of the 20 participants, 10 will be selected for eight-week internships at various NASA centers, including the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, and will receive weekly stipends.

The program will continue in the summers of 2014 and 2015. Information and the program application form are available here.

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