From December 5 through 15, the Lab hosted a group of 13 undergraduate students from Colorado College for an immersive computer science course. Barry Rountree, a computer scientist in the Center for Applied Scientific Computing, co-led the class, along with Danielle Ellsworth from Colorado College.

“This is a way of bringing in well prepared, very motivated students, and getting them to work on actual science,” Rountree says.

The subject of the project-based course was Nanopond, an open-source evolution simulation written in C. The simulation employs a grid of cells that can interact with adjacent cells in different ways, ranging from predation to reproduction to symbiosis, enabling simple studies of complex behaviors in ecology, evolution, and natural selection. After learning the ins and outs of the simulation, the students designed their own projects to study various biological and ecological characteristics of the pond.

“The question for the students is then: How do you think about this? You have all the data you want about what’s happening at the micro level, so how do you synthesize this to see what’s happening at the macro level?” Rountree explains. “This is the kind of project I wish I had been given during my computer science education.”

Colorado College follows a nontraditional term structure. Each course is 3.5 weeks long, but is the only course students are enrolled in during that term, making it fully immersive. This lends itself well to a class like the one at hand. Ellsworth spent the first week discussing the basics of Nanopond with her students at home in Colorado Springs before the class made their way to Livermore, where they worked on applying the simulations to real scientific questions in the Lab’s world-class facilities.

Ellsworth—once a Lab intern herself—says the connections between computational techniques and the science they enable are sometimes hard to see. She likes to provide her students with the tools they need to make these real-world connections themselves, and likens this to the large-scale simulations done at the Lab.

“We don’t have all the answers, because they’re the ones becoming the experts! They’re given the freedom to discover something nobody else has,” she says.

Among the 13 visiting students was Mira Giles-Pufahl, who worked on determining what types of genomes would be most successful in the pond.

“This opportunity has been great,” Giles-Pufahl states. “The national labs were never on my radar before, but it has been interesting to hear about the broader research going on here.”

The event was made possible by the Computing Scholar Program, which planned and executed the students' visit.

—Anashe Bandari