Colleges & Supercomputers: State, Schools and Private Sector Teaming Up To Push Innovation

The role of technology in education is greater today than ever before. As a result, many cutting-edge colleges and universities are teaming up with state agencies and private businesses to deliver state-of-the-art computing systems to students. These collaborations enable researchers and technicians to advance innovation at the college level.

One such partnership took place in May 2011, when IBM donated a supercomputer to New York’s Union College to celebrate the school’s newly opened Peter Irving Wold Center. A $22 million project, Times Union reported that the center is devoted to “innovative research and exploration”. Now, thanks to IBM, researchers at the center will have access to the $1 million ‘intelligent cluster’ of 88 servers and more than 1,000 processors, which collectively allows 10 billion calculations 1,000 times per second.

IBM reportedly plans to work with Union researchers to develop a neuroscience-imaging project and conduct an environmental analysis of the Mohawk River. John E. Kelly III, a Union alumnus and IBM’s current senior vice president and director of research, noted that the system is a fitting counterpart to the supercomputer found at nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He said, “This concentration of computer technology and computational horsepower between RPI and Union is incomparable anywhere in the world.”

Partnerships like that of Union College and IBM have become almost commonplace in recent years. In 2007, Butler University received more than $10 million in donations from two private entities, the Richard L. Fairbanks Foundation and businessman (and Butler alum) Frank Levinson. The donations were used to improve Butler’s science program and upgrade the school’s supercomputer, Big Dawg, to perform 8 times faster. In October 2011, Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts launched an advanced computing program after it was awarded more than $330,000 in grant money from local research company, Nuclea Biotechnologies and the Mass. Life Sciences Center, a state-funded institute.

Other partnerships are forged exclusively between higher learning institutions. One example is the proposed Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, a supercomputer network that would link Northeastern University, Harvard, Boston University, MIT and University of Massachusetts. Slated for inception in 2013, officials at these schools believe the system will have applications in virtually every college-level discipline.

In addition to private sector investors, government agencies have also made donations to colleges and/or college students for purposes of technological advancement. In Spring 2012, University of Wisconsin Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor, Dan Negrut, received a $120,000 instrumentation grant from the US Army Research Office. The grant will allow Professor Negrut to augment the school’s supercomputer, which is primarily utilized by the Wisconsin Applied Computing Center. In addition, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, sponsored by the US Department of Defense, has been conferred to roughly 3,200 students since the program was launched in 1990. The fellowship is awarded to US students in 15 different scientific disciplines, and fully finances 3 years of tuition for each recipient. The program is intended to increase “the number and quality of the nation’s scientists and engineers,” according to an article by UDaily, the school newspaper of University of Delaware.

Though collegiate supercomputing is still in its early stages, the trend stands to rise significantly in the coming years. For many campuses, the only hindrance to adopting such advanced technology is the high price tag of these computing systems. Thankfully, state agencies and private donors are seeing positive results with systems they have already invested in, and are likely to collaborate with many more colleges and universities in the coming years.

Abby Ledford

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