Developing Scientific Computing Capabilities for the Workforce of Tomorrow

This summer's Scientific Computing 102 internship prepared college students for the big data challenges facing researchers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)

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The 2016 Scientific Computing 102 students with their instructor, David Biersach (first from the right, front row) and the Office of Educational Programming team.

For young scientists joining a research project for a summer, every minute of the experience is precious. In addition to reading previous publications and learning the scientific vernacular, many of the students coming to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory for summer research internships must scramble to teach themselves how to code so they can work with their data.

“If six out of their ten weeks here are spent just learning the basics of computer programming, those undergraduates will have a reduced opportunity to acquire true expertise in their field,” noted David Biersach, a technology architect at Brookhaven Lab. “I work with the Information Technology Division [ITD], so I get to see what scientists across the lab are doing with custom coding solutions and where a lot of the interns are struggling.”

To help students meet this challenge, Biersach and the Office of Educational Programs (OEP) created the Scientific Computing 102 course with the support of the New York State Department of Education Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), a program serving those underrepresented in STEM fields. The course trained talented undergraduates on the foundations of high-performance computing and big data solutions, ultimately increasing their computer science literacy and increasing their competitiveness for future DOE internships.  Hosting researchers have a high demand for those with strong computing skills.

“Last year we had a high school pilot program that went very well, but we really wanted to focus on workforce development, so we put our effort into college students this summer,” said Biersach, who designed and taught the course.

The eighteen undergraduate students who took part absorbed a full academic course in just three weeks while completing 80 lab assignments and a research project. They learned about parallel processing, 3D graphics, numerical analysis, and simulation and modeling algorithms using the computer language C++.

“What makes this program special is that the skills and practice problems have been reviewed by scientists in multiple departments around the Lab,” Biersach said. “These are exactly the types of problems we’re trying to solve in the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) and the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II). We’ve tried very hard to calibrate the program to actual need [here at Brookhaven],” he said, noting, “These areas of focus differentiate Scientific Computing 102 from the computer science courses offered at universities.”

Many of the students who participated in Scientific Computing 102 plan to come back to Brookhaven next summer through the DOE Office of Science Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program.  Noel Blackburn, OEP’s manager of University Relations and DOE Programs has worked closely with CSTEP administrators across the state to bring the CSTEP students here. Blackburn noted that he is “excited to have our New York State students participate in the program and I fully expect to see many of them return in the DOE-funded internship programs.”

Biersach too is excited about the future possibilities for the program. He hopes to increase the class size to accommodate more students next year, and there are discussions about fostering collaboration among the ITD, the OEP, and the Computational Science Initiative to expand the program’s reach to graduate students.

In the end, “the litmus test will be to see if these students can hit the ground running next summer at Brookhaven, as part of SULI, or the many other DOE internship opportunities available for our future STEM leaders,” Biersach observed.

CSTEP was funded by New York State Department of Education in 1986 with the mission to increase the number of historically underrepresented minorities and economically disadvantaged undergraduate and graduate students who complete pre-professional or professional education programs that lead to professional licensure and to careers in mathematics, science, technology and health-related fields.

CFN and NSLS-II are DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.  The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.  For more information, please visit

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