It’s impossible to convey how exciting and overwhelming SC can be, and we are all simultaneously elated and exhausted. But I was struck by a few things that happened yesterday, so I want to write about them while they are fresh in my exploding brain.
I wandered into the University of Texas booth at the start of the day, uncertain who to talk to or what to ask, and I was hugely lucky to have Charlie Dey ask if he could help me out. When I mentioned high school students he lit up and began to enthuse about code@TACC,. His enthusiasm is contagious, and he has an obvious gift for teaching. He told me all about the programme, and how amazing the kids were.
Charlie absolutely glowed as told me that the girls’ group at code@TACC last summer built a cluster of raspberry pi’s that wound up 4th on the Green500 list for small datasets – an outstanding achievement for a bunch of 15 year olds! He generously repeated his enthusiasm on camera, and then sought out other people at the booth who he thought I would find interesting (and oh! I did! I really, really did!). Every time I came back to the booth he greeted me like an honoured guest and tried to find more people for me to talk to. He was breathtakingly generous with his time and energy, and I felt like I was meeting an old friend.
I managed to tear myself away from the Uof T and headed to Jülich Research Institute’s supercomputing centre booth where they have some great visualizations on display. We spent some time on Monday filming Jens Göbbert, as he told us about his studies on Diesel injection, and his passion and enthusiasm for his work were incredibly inspiring.
There is a prominent display at the booth about the Human Brain project, and when I asked Jens about it he said we should talk to Paul Baumeister, who wasn’t on the booth right then. Another friendly member of the Jülich crew helpfully told me when I would find Paul on the booth, and my stalking began.
After a few failed attempts (I’m not the world’s most efficient stalker), I finally managed to be at the booth at the same time as Paul, and I explained that I wanted to take back his expertise to my school. In the absence of sufficient luggage allowance to pack him in my suitcase, I asked if he would be comfortable with being filmed. My heart was in my mouth when he said “I am absolutely not comfortable with that… but of course I will do it!”
I love this, it’s the essence of teaching in many ways – I push myself out of my comfort zone on a daily basis. It’s how we reach others, by reaching right out of ourselves, and of course it’s how we grow. After a bit more chat about what we wanted to capture, Paul, who had clearly taken Alan Alda’s keynote deeply to heart, asked me to fetch some of my students for the filming, so that he could see how they were reacting to him, and tailor his story accordingly.
When I came back with Jess and Curtis, Paul began telling them about his work. At first very conscious of the camera, he hit his stride really fast as he started explaining the brain and the project to model it. He became animated and gripping in his enthusiasm, and we were all enthralled. As time went on and I began to feel guilty for monopolizing him, I couldn’t stop filming because my students were asking him deeper and deeper questions, and Paul had collected a crowd of fascinated listeners. There is nothing more riveting than someone who is passionate and articulate about their work, and Paul is an outstanding example.
We finally had to pause when my camera ran out of memory after nearly 15 minutes, so we switched to Curtis’s camera and finished up the interview. Although there was still half an hour left of show floor time and we were desperately keen to see as much as possible, we stayed at the booth talking more about research (and, ok, a little about games) and Paul started talking about some of his side projects, holding the kids’ attention (and mine!) in the palm of his hand, even though we were exhausted and overwhelmed by this time.
We’ve encountered this again and again at SC15 – passionate, articulate, eloquent researchers who freely share their time, energy, and extraordinary enthusiasm with such immense generosity. They just love the idea that High School students are here and fascinated by what they do, and they give of themselves wholeheartedly, with stories full of emotion, in just the way Alan Alda implored us to do.
When we left at the end of the day the last bus back to our hotel was overflowing, so a crowd of university student on the bus piled off so that “the high school students could get home safe”, which just topped off the day beautifully.
I can’t even begin to properly thank all of the people who have shared their work with us over the past few days – there are so many, and they have been so profoundly inspiring – but we are deeply and passionately grateful. SC15 for us has been the essence of communication, connection, and inspiration.
To Professor David Abramson who started this crazy journey for us in 2011, to Monash University who still sponsors us to go, you have given us an astounding experience that will forever change both us and the school.
To everyone who has encountered wide-eyed high school students at SC15 and/or their equally wide-eyed and incandescent teachers, and shared your time, expertise and extraordinary passion either in person or on camera, your impact will travel back to Australia and beyond. Your passion will carry around the world and far into the future. We will never forget you.
**You may feel I have overused the superlatives in this post, but I assure you I haven’t used nearly enough. There aren’t enough superlatives in the world.