JMU builds supercomputer for national model undergraduate program

HARRISONBURG - String together 16 personal computers that each run at 450 megahertz and hold 256 megabytes of memory, and what do you get? The answer is a supercomputer - the equivalent of a large machine that cost millions only a decade or so ago.

At James Madison University, through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the mathematics and physics departments have built a supercomputer with 16 PCs, and an add-on 17-gigabyte disk of memory, stacked on a bookshelf.

Other universities have built similar parallel computer systems for graduate student and faculty research. But, at JMU, the powerful networked computer is aimed at teaching - and retaining - undergraduate students in mathematics and physics.

"A single PC now is about the equivalent of the top-of-the-line supercomputer in 1976," said mathematics Associate Professor C. David Pruett.

"And those supercomputers cost $20 million or $30 million, and we bought this for $50,000," added mathematics Associate Professor James Sochacki.

Sochacki and Pruett are co-directors along with physics Associate Professor Dorn Peterson and Professor William Ingham of an NSF-funded project to develop a national model to train undergraduates for the increasingly-in-demand field of computational science.

"We hope to have a curriculum constituted in three or four courses that introduces undergraduate students to computational science - the use of computers to model the physical world," said Peterson. "Prior to this, that's primarily been a graduate school's job, and we think we can do a good introduction at the undergraduate level."

The professors said that when they started developing the program they knew of no such undergraduate programs except in Sweden.

The $163,105 NSF grant, matched by JMU, is also funding a fluid dynamics laboratory and a computer visualization lab for the collaborative program among the departments of mathematics and physics at JMU and North Caroli

Contact: Dr. James Sochacki
James Madison University

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