A supercomputer capable of searching the outer limits of space for alien life and helping stop the spread of COVID-19 is located close to home at Southern State Community College, where computer science students learned valuable knowledge and skills in their field by building it themselves.
“This is an amazing example of student-selected, project-based learning,” said SSCC Computer Science Professor Josh Montgomery. “This project took a wide range of skills to complete.”
According to Montgomery, the supercomputer is composed of 320 Raspberry Pi 3 mini computers with access to 1,280 processing cores and 320 gigabytes of Random Access Memory (RAM) storage, making it a powerful device with many capabilities.
Montgomery said the computer has crunched data for programs like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which is an effort to detect evidence of technological civilizations that may exist elsewhere in the universe, particularly in our galaxy. He said the computer analyzes radio waves from space in hopes of detecting other life forms, and that the computer was used during the COVID-19 pandemic to crunch data on the virus in hopes of slowing its spread.
Students who were interested in the project could work on it for credit toward certain exams that were tied to the learning objectives of Montgomery’s courses, Montgomery said.
SSCC students Derick Caplinger and Chad Park came up with the idea in 2019, Montgomery said, and using $40,000 in grant funding from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), Montgomery helped his students bring the idea to fruition. More than 30 students have contributed to the project and received credit, though Montgomery credited Park and Seth Lewis with developing the core programming and completing most of the work.
Students constructed the computer cases themselves using aluminum and 3D-printed parts from the computer lab designed to fit in the classroom window, which is 8.5 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
“I wanted the computer to sit in my classroom window,” Montgomery said. “Students went through five different computer case design ideas for how the computer would physically come together, because accommodating that requirement was very challenging.”
The computer is powered by a custom-built electric system using more than 3,300 feet of cables, the length of nearly 10 football fields, said Montgomery. The computers are networked together using CISCO switches provided by Highland District Hospital. Montgomery thanked Tim Bogard, IT director, for assistance.
Each Raspberry Pi computer has an LED strip on the side indicating the status of processor utilization and connection to different online services, Montgomery said. In total, the supercomputer boasts an impressive display of 2,560 individual LEDs.
“It does a great job of lighting up the entire hallway by the computer lab,” Montgomery said.
The project was paid for with funding from the Regionally Aligned Priorities Delivering Skills grant, which supports and strengthens industry sectors in need at the regional level, driving equipment dependent workplace education, training and skills, according to the ODE. In 2020, the federal Perkins Grant helped buy small parts and pieces along the way, Montgomery said.
“Having a dream, passion or interest in something should drive learning,” Montgomery said. “Learning should not be focused on just finding a job to earn more money. While that’s part of it, you can develop greater critical thinking skills while working on projects you want to complete in a learning environment that’s fun and impactful.”
For more information about Southern State and its course offerings, visit sscc.edu.
This story was submitted by David Wright, the social media coordinator at Southern State Community College.