This award is to support hosting LittleFe buildouts as part of the HPC Educators Program at the Supercomputing 12 and Supercomputing 13 Conferences, and for the first external evaluation of the LittleFe project. LittleFe is a complete 6 node Beowulf style portable computational cluster which supports shared memory parallelism (OpenMP), distributed memory parallelism (MPI), and GPGPU parallelism (CUDA). These low-cost light-weight units are well-suited for institutions and teaching environments that do not have access to parallel platforms for parallel and distributed computing education. Teaching key concepts such as speedup, efficiency, and load balancing are much more effectively done on a parallel platform. These units will also support parallel programming and distributed computing in the undergraduate CS curriculum at colleges and universities. They will also support student programming contests which will be hosted at e.g. the XSEDE12 and XSEDE13 conferences, and outreach events at junior and senior high schools across the United States.

Project Report

The LittleFe/BCCD project is designed to expand the reach of computational science education and parallel, distributed, and high-performance computing (HPC). We accomplish these goals by designing our own hardware platform called LittleFe. LittleFe is a portable computational cluster made of off-the-shelf components. It is referred to in the field as a Beowulf-style computational cluster. LittleFe’s total cost is $2800, cheap enough for many schools and other educational institutions to afford as part of their discretionary budgets. It weighs less than 50lbs, making it easy to take to conferences and outreach events as airline checked baggage. We designed it to be taken out of its box and turned on in less than five minutes. For more information on LittleFe, see The Bootable Cluster CD (BCCD) is our own custom, open-source Linux operating system designed to ease the inclusion of parallel, distributed, and high-performance computing in a classroom or lab. As a live CD, it can be used to boot a computer lab as a fully functional cluster in under 10 minutes; restoring the original lab setup is as easy as ejecting the CDs and rebooting the computers. Many commonly-used, but complex-to-configure software packages are included pre-configured on the BCCD, and a custom networking setup allows the system to configure itself as a cluster without any user intervention. The BCCD also comes pre-packaged with curriculum modules for introducing parallel, distributed, and high-performance computing concepts in a variety of educational contexts. All of these features have made BCCD easy to include in academic curricula as a hands-on way of introducing parallel, distributed, and high performance computing. For more information on BCCD, see Since 2011, with help from the National Science Foundation and the Intel Corporation, the LittleFe/BCCD team has hosted a series of "Buildout" events at regional and national computational science conferences, wherein participants are trained to build the LittleFe cluster, install the BCCD operating system, and learn to use and develop curriculum modules. These Buildout events pull from the conferences’ existing participant pools in their education programs and select faculty at high schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate colleges lacking the resources to start using computational science, parallel, distributed and HPC in their curricula, but committed to doing so. We encourage the faculty participants to involve their students in the Buildout events as well. During the Buildout events, each group from a participating institution receives on their table an unassembled LittleFe kit. Over the course of the day, the faculty participants and any students they have invited assemble the kit into a fully-functioning LittleFe cluster, with assistance as needed from the LittleFe/BCCD team. Once the LittleFes are assembled, the participants install the BCCD and learn how to use and develop curriculum modules. At the end of the event, all participants take home their LittleFe/BCCD units to use in classes, research, and outreach activities. It is important to note that the participants receive their LittleFe/BCCD unit at no cost; however, the unit is not really free. The faculty participants are expected to write curricula using LittleFe and BCCD over the course of the next year and submit these curricula back to the LittleFe/BCCD team. These curricula will be made freely-available for other educators via the Computational Science Education Reference Desk (CSERD, and HPC University (HPCU, In the context of NSF grant 1258604, we asked for support to evaluate the effectiveness of the LittleFe/BCCD Buildout project. In order to gather data demonstrating the effectiveness of the project, we asked Buildout participants to complete online surveys evaluating LittleFe, BCCD, the Buildout process, the usefulness of existing curriculum modules, and the helpfulness of the LittleFe/BCCD team. The results of the survey were analyzed and reported by the LittleFe/BCCD team with help from an external evaluator. These reports are available on the web at With support from the NSF grant, 36 new LittleFe/BCCD units were placed at educational institutions through Buildout events. A number of new modules from these institutions are under review by the LittleFe/BCCD team to be included in CSERD and HPCU. A handful have already been integrated into the latest versions of the BCCD. NSF’s support has helped the LittleFe/BCCD project to develop a community of educators and made it possible for their students to learn effective uses of parallel, distributed, and high-performance computing in preparation for becoming a new generation of computational science professionals.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS)
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Sylvia Spengler
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Shodor Education Foundation Inc
United States
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