School Trip to LRZ
Look inside and disassemble: Understanding the computers. Photo: vs/LRZ
Trivia can be exciting: The fact that the adhesive mat in front of the computer room in the computing cube of the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) smacks when your foot is lifted on it immediately tempts you to jump and take lots of little steps. But then the SuperMUC-NG is even more interesting. "Do computers have feelings?" asks a pupil, and his friend immediately sees, "There's no keyboard here at all, how do you give the computer instructions?"
Rainer Oesmann, a member of staff at the LRZ, is today guiding six boys and girls from a sixth grade at Gymnasium Kirchheim through the computer cube, having to explain a lot of everyday things, sometimes even laughing a little. SuperMUC-NG, he says, has a name, but it shows less emotion and sometimes a few quirks. The commands to the mainframe come via data lines from the laptops and computers of the researchers at universities. And he already guides the group through the computer cabinets and explains to the children why it's as hot here as in a sauna: "There are 311,040 computing nodes working here and they produce quite a lot of heat." The boys and girls feel the different temperatures on the pipes of the water cooling system, look at the imposing gas cylinders of the extinguishing system and watch the whirring storage robots with thousands of tapes.
Experience MINT Subjects in Practice
The LRZ goes schools: the scientific computing centre participates in the TUMjunior programme, which is intended to arouse interest in mathematical and scientific topics and computer science, the STEM subjects, among schoolchildren. "TUMjunior is supported by the Bavarian Ministry of Education and is aimed at pupils in grades 5 to 10. Three excursions to different places of learning are planned for each class per school year," explains Dr Magdalena Kaden from the School of Social Science and Technology at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Together with colleagues, the educator coordinates the programme under the direction of private lecturer Dr Jutta Möhringer, who initiated TUMjunior, and evaluates its benefits. "When students see and experience technology and can even handle it themselves, their motivation to study it more intensively grows," she says. TUMjunior is intended to make it possible for students to experience and literally grasp the process of gaining scientific knowledge, which underlies all STEM subjects."
In addition to the LRZ, TUMjunior classes also visit the TUM experimantal laboratory in the Deutsches Museum, the ix-quadrat mathematics exhibition, the planetarium of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) or the Botanical Garden, depending on the grade. The curriculum for Nature & Technology in Year 6 includes computers and computer science for the first time. Therefore, from October to December, a total of 17 sixth-grade classes from three grammar schools in Garching, Kirchheim and Unterföhring take a look around the LRZ in the mornings. There, under the guidance of LRZ trainees, they disassemble personal computers, look at hard disks and memory disks, circuit boards and processors, and reassemble them to then start a slimmed-down Linux programme and use it to create, save and change a file.
Gaining Insight in Foreign Places
"Much better than at school," one boy comments and quickly turns back to the cables on the hard drive. "Today all technical devices are welded together, it's an absolute benefit for everyone that we can look inside a PC here and get to know the individual parts from the grey boxes," says Philipp Augat, who teaches German, history and computer science and works in the administration team of the Kirchheim grammar school. "A foreign place is much more interesting for the children, many technical questions can be better illustrated here."
At the LRZ, those responsible for training Petra Gärtner and Alessandro Podo prepared the visit of the school groups with the trainees and in cooperation with the teachers of TUMjunior, created a small manual for handling the technical components as well as the first Linux commands. Here, the children learn how supercomputers are built and what researchers use SuperMUC-NG for: for simulations of the Earth, for example, visualisations of turbulence in space and of blood flow in the body, or for calculations of flows. "We want to move away from guided tours, we want the students to be active at the learning sites themselves, to be able to experience science and technology in practice," says Kaden. "The respective excursions are systematically integrated into the lessons and are prepared and followed up using the TUMjunior materials."
Making Research Tangible
TUMjunior is still in the experimental stage, the three grammar schools are pilot schools. Teachers and students are still being interviewed for a study and their knowledge is being documented. If this confirms the pedagogical assumptions that science and computer science become more comprehensible and interesting through practical experience and participation, the programme will be opened to other schools and throughout Bavaria. Pupils will then be able to visit even more places of learning; teachers, on the other hand, will find materials to go with the excursions, so that the subject matter and excursions can be meaningfully interlinked. "TUMjunior aims to further professionalise teachers so that they can embed methods such as excursions in their lessons," explains Kaden. "Children find their way around better, by the way, if they can visit a place of learning several times." It is quite possible that today's sixth graders will come back in two or three years: After all, there are many more interesting things to discover at the LRZ besides supercomputers - visualisation technology, for example, artificial intelligence and, above all, many exciting research projects. (vs)
Watching the robots archive. Photo: A.Podo/LRZ
First time coding for LINUX. Photo: vs/LRZ