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Article | Mathematics and Computer Science

Middle school students get a view of what it means to be a computer scientist

Argonne computer scientist Tom Peterka visited Glenside Middle School on April 26, where he spoke about the opportunities and challenges that a career in computer science offers. He talked to groups of 20 students each in four presentations, showcasing what he does and does not do.

In his presentation, titled Myths about Computer Science and National Labs,” Peterka contrasted being a computer scientist at Argonne with the portrayal of scientists at the fictional Hawkins National Lab on Netflix’s popular series Stranger Things.”

What he doesn’t do, Peterka said Is carry out secret government experiments. What he does do, however, he finds equally exciting and more useful in the real world.

Many of the students have heard the term big data’ used to describe the explosive growth of information being produced by today’s high-performance computers,” Peterka said. Since my expertise is in visualization of big data, I presented slides showing the students how visualization methods can provide researchers with new insights into complex applications in areas, such as materials science and environmental science.”

The scale of the problems Peterka and his team tackle requires supercomputers, if not supernatural forces. We develop highly parallel techniques that can scale to systems such as the IBM Blue Gene/Q at Argonne, which has over 700,000 processors,” Peterka said.

Scientists then use these new techniques to address problems previously considered intractable.”

Peterka also covered questions from the students about what a computer science career at Argonne means in terms of salary, work hours, education, work environment, and programming skills.

The sessions were voluntary, and the students selected the areas in which they were interested. The event was coordinated by Glenside Middle School and Junior Achievement.

This was Peterka’s second year participating in the Glenside career day. he has also volunteered as the photographer for the robotics team for the same school, and he has judged science fairs in the same district several times in previous years.