Andrea Prosperetti, Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering, takes pride in discovering talent in unusual places. Like, for instance, the pool of freshman students at the UH Cullen College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. For a National Academy of Engineering member, who mostly teaches seniors and graduate students, soon-to-be sophomores are an untapped resource, and one for which he created an advanced summer program, “Vistas in Advanced Computing.”
His logic regarding throwing them into the figurative deep end of science is pitch perfect.
“If you start playing the piano, you have scales for months and that doesn’t help you fall in love with the piano,” says Prosperetti, launching into poetic expression about the science that sparks his passion. “So what we are doing is giving them the easiest pieces by Chopin earlier than they would get them, to whet their appetite for science and numerical simulation.”
Now nine students, who exhibited advanced skills in calculus and physics during their first year of college, are part of Prosperetti’s 8-week, 8-hour-a-day summer program at the UH Center for Advanced Computing & Data Systems (CACDS). Each student has been awarded a $4,000 scholarship to learn coding, mathematics and computer architecture, an opportunity many of them would have never gotten so early in college.
“The idea is that we are giving them a compass to guide them in their future careers,” said Prosperetti. “We are going to open their minds to the breadth of advanced computing and explain to them how cool computing is.”
Funny thing, some of them already understand that part.
When Jon Genty, an 18-year-old computer engineering major and student of the Honor’s College, heard about Prosperetti’s new class he had one thought: “I had to get in!”
“This is exactly where I want to go with my career and most students don’t even get into coding until their junior or senior years,” said Genty, one of those rare freshmen who already knows where his future lies. His plans include a Ph.D. in computer engineering and then the discovery of something in his field because, as he said, “It’d be cool.”
Now’s the time
According to a 2014 report by the U.S. National Academies, there is an urgent need “to prepare, nurture and grow the national scientific workforce for creating, utilizing and supporting advanced cyberinfrastructure.”
And the only way to do that, according to Prosperetti, is to teach, and maybe to catch students early.
“The University of Houston has such great diversity,” said Prosperetti. “In the underserved populations there could be the next Einstein, who would never have a chance to blossom as a scientist.” That’s why Prosperetti went door-to-door in math and science classes, searching for his students. His summer program will help them, but it just might help the rest of us, too.
“At this point the only way to get more results out of computers is to be smarter in programming them,” said Prosperetti. “Instead of relying on the brawn of computers, you have to rely on the brain of the programmers.”
Thomas Jackson, a 19-year-old UH physics major, is one of the students Prosperetti found and is now taking the course. Jackson did his homework, even before the class started.
“I found a senior-level mathematics course and this was going to be the same kind of stuff,” he said, excitedly. When Prosperetti came around to his class and explained the program, he had a similar reaction to Genty’s. “I jumped at it,” said Jackson. “It’s great to do what you want to do for once, you know, instead of bagging groceries,” which he’s done for a while.
But mainly, he’s having a great time.
“I have had so much fun with some of these equations. I didn’t think I’d see some of this stuff until my senior year and I’m already doing it!”
Computing the future
For Prosperetti, computing is “one of the greatest things that has happened in science in centuries,” helping solve some of the world’s most complicated problems.
And as his young students are learning, it demands rigorous study.
“These students are so motivated, and that goes a long way,” said Prosperetti. “They’ve also learned the fun of computing and now they’re launched. We are going to read news about these students one day. They’re going to stick with science and they’re going to love it and lead wonderfully productive lives.”
What more could you ask from a summer computing course?