Creekside coders create and engage during “Hour of Code” event

Increasingly, every aspect of society – from education to healthcare – relies on software-driven technology. Even as we rely more often on “smart” devices for all aspects of our daily lives, we may not be producing enough computer scientists and software developers to satisfy our demand for all things tech.


Creekside Elementary in Durham hopes students will catch the coding bug at a young age.

According to, by the year 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs but only 400,000 computer science students ready to enter the field. Additionally, according to the Computing Research Association, the computer science field suffers from an alarming gender and diversity gap that has not improved over the years – in 2010, less than 14 percent of US and Canadian computer science graduates were women, and only 10 percent were minorities.

Movements such as the Hour of Code encourage parents and educators to close these gaps and broaden the pool of students interested in computer science as a profession. Since its inception, over 76 million people, from schoolchildren to President Obama, have tried their hand at coding using the fun and nonthreatening materials provided by the Hour of Code project. This year, during Computer Science Education Week, local Creekside Elementary School students from Kindergarten to 5th grade joined the movement during their technology elective periods. Using popular movie characters and apps that they are already familiar with, the students wrote simple commands to position their characters in a setting and give their characters movement.

Jill Adams, technology specialist at Creekside Elementary School, organized the event for the students. According to Adams, as the students progressed to each level of their coding activity, the complexity increased, which gave them the opportunity to grow their skills in problem solving and logic.

Adams said the most exciting part for her was seeing students so involved and invested in completing the coding puzzles correctly. “I could hear, see, and feel the frustration of students when they did not solve the level correctly, but what was so amazing was the determination that followed. Students were committed to finding the correct code to complete each level successfully. Additionally, students collaborated with their peers to solve the coding puzzles, and the collaboration didn’t look like students simply telling other students which blocks to use. Instead, it was students working through the process with their computer neighbor to help them solve it for themselves,” said Adams.


Students wrote simple commands to position their characters in a setting and give their characters movement.

Students at Creekside had a lot to say about the Hour of Code. One student commented that, “It was a little tricky, but I didn’t give up,” while another stated, “It was hard because I had to figure out the right blocks, but it was easier the more I did it.”

Adams implemented the Hour of Code last year with one grade level but decided this year to encourage the entire school to host an Hour of Code event so that all students would have the opportunity to participate. Creekside Elementary School is the largest elementary school in Durham, serving 878 students, and all students experienced a coding challenge at which they could be successful during the week.

Adams created a webpage on her technology website that allowed students to choose their Hour of Code adventure. The site also includes additional coding activities for use in classrooms, technology labs, or at home.

“I am hoping that students enjoyed their Hour of Code during their technology special but it doesn’t stop there. Hopefully, students will catch the coding bug during their time with me and want to repeat, continue, or try other coding activities on their own. Perhaps some will even choose computer science as a career because of this experience,” said Adams.

- Sharlini Sankaran, Executive Director, REACH NC, and parent of two students at Creekside Elementary School, Durham NC.

- Jill Adams, Technology Specialist, Creekside Elementary School, Durham NC

Computer modeling facilitates discussion of coastal hazards

RENCI’s Brian Blanton, PhD, recently gave a talk called “Simulating Storm Surge for Coastal Hazard and Risk Assessment” as part of a Disaster Resilience Symposium held at Virginia Tech.

The goal of the symposium was to facilitate interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration on efforts to reduce the ecological and socioeconomic risks of coastal hazards. Living on a coastline comes with a certain set of risks, and coastal resilience researchers study the most effective ways to ensure coastal communities have the ability to bounce back after events such as tropical cyclones and tsunamis, and the resulting flooding and inundation.

Blanton, an oceanographer who leads RENCI’s environmental initiatives team, has worked to model coastal storm surge for the past 15 years.

According to United Nations research, 44 percent of the world’s population lives along a coast, and that number is likely to increase because people tend to move toward coastal regions. With numbers like this, it is crucial to ask the big questions. For example, how can we provide coastal residents with insurance in a sustainable manner?

Blanton, his research team, and high performance computing help to answer these big questions by using data from real storms to run simulations. Those simulations are then used to create maps which allow planners to determine if there is a feasible way to build resilient communities that are functional and sustainable for 10, 15, or 20 years.

By considering data such as coastal terrain, storm atmospheric pressure, winds, and waves generated by winds, Blanton and his peers are able to model and forecast storms and storm surge to improve coastal flood predictions. Those improved predictions have already been used to create new coastal floodplain maps in North Carolina. These maps are used to help determine coastal flood insurance rates under FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, and as the maps are updated, they more accurately reflect the true risk of living in these areas.

As people recognize the risks – even if that recognition comes through changing insurance rates – they will be better prepared to take part in discussions about coastal risk, resilience, and sustainability, and they will have more accurate data for making better decisions.

In addition to Blanton’s talk on storm surge simulations, Chad Briggs, strategy director at GlobalInt, and Donald T. Resio, director of the Taylor Engineering Research Institute at the University of Northern Florida, both spoke on issues of coastal resilience.

-Stephanie Suber

High performance computing: It really does matter

Better models of coastal storm surge are among  the reasons that HPC matters.

Better models of coastal storm surge are among
the reasons that HPC matters.

Every November thousands of researchers and industry representatives in high performance computing and related fields, such as advanced networking, data storage, and analysis, meet for the annual supercomputing conference.

This year SC14 will bring together computer engineers, software developers, computational scientists, industry CTOs, grad students, and assorted geeks from around the world to New Orleans during the week of November 17. RENCI will be there, sharing information about the iRODS data management platform, the iRODS Consortium, ExoGENI and related projects on Networking Infrastructure as a Service (NIaaS), the National Consortium for Data Science, and other RENCI research projects. Read more…

Hacking for better health

Hacking is not just what computer science students do when they’ve had too much strong coffee.

In 2014, hackathons bring together smart people from a variety of backgrounds for intense, technical problem-solving sessions that often last several days. They are a mainstream method for harnessing brainpower to generate new ideas, business models, products, and technical solutions.

Hacking Pediatrics, held October 18 and 19 at the Microsoft New England R&D Center (yes, the acronym is NERD) was one such Hackathon. About 150 professionals gathered in Cambridge, MA, to spend the weekend developing technologies to improve pediatric healthcare. RENCI’s Ketan Mane attended the invite-only event, and needless to say, he had a productive two days. Read more…

Building better classifiers for reproducible science

RENCI’s Clark Jeffries recently presented a webinar for Orion Bionetworks called “Seeking Best Practices in Classifier Construction and Testing.”

Jeffries is a PhD-level bioinformatics specialist with an interest in interpreting neuroscientific information to better understand and treat psychiatric and neurological conditions. For years he has worked with researchers in the School of Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill to analyze data and better understand debilitating diseases like schizophrenia.  Read more…

Environmental science infrastructure across continents


The CoopEUS conference will be he;d in Helsinki, Finland, starting Sept. 30

The CoopEUS annual meeting will be held in Helsinki, Finland, starting Sept. 30

Infrastructure for research in the environmental sciences shouldn’t be constrained by national boundaries. That’s the idea behind Cooperation EU-US, or CoopEUS.

Launched by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Union through its Research Infrastructures action of the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, CoopEUS brings together American and European scientists involved in environmental research projects for collaboration that will facilitate building a truly global and integrated infrastructure to support environmental research.  Read more…

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Codefest to focus on collaboration and results

Here’s a concept: a conference where people get real work done.

I’m not attempting to be snarky or to criticize the many worthwhile conferences offered to professionals every year; I’m simply paraphrasing a statement on the Open Science Codefest website. OSCodefest will bring together scientists and programmers involved in developing scientific software who think their work could benefit from collaboration with other researchers, software engineers and developers. Read more…

In science, software matters

Outer Banks flooding from Hurricane Irene (2011). Modeling software used to understand high-impact events will benefit from software development best practices.

Outer Banks flooding from Hurricane Irene (2011). Modeling software used to understand high-impact events will benefit from software development best practices.

In the 21st century, it’s impossible to separate science from the software scientists use to collect data, run computer models and analyze model outputs.

Several RENCI experts make the case for sustainable software development practices in scientific research in two articles recently published in the Journal of Open Research Software.  In the first article, written by RENCI Senior Scientist and Oceanographer Brian Blanton and Chris Lenhardt, domain scientist for environmental data sciences and systems, the authors point out that developing scientific software that is sustainable, accessible, and transparent is especially important when policy decisions and public safety are at stake. Read more…

Coming soon: A “Facebook for hydrologists”

After two years of work, HydroShare, a “Facebook for hydrologists,” will go live in July as an open source website. The HydroShare research team, which includes collaborators from RENCI, Brigham Young University, the University of South Carolina, Purdue University, Tufts University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of California at San Diego, received a $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation in July 2012 for this project.

HydroShare will give hydrologists the technology infrastructure they need to address critical issues related to water quality, accessibility, and management. The open website will be similar to YouTube in that it will allow users to simply drag and drop their models and data to upload to the site, and similar to Amazon, with a message board and rating system. It will provide an online collaborative environment for discovering, accessing and sharing water science research. Read more…

Big data innovation explodes at RENCI

Claire McPherson of Deloitte closes out a great Innovation Summit.

The creative vibes were buzzing at the First NCDS Data Innovation Showcase, held at RENCI on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. The Showcase, centered around innovative strategies for the rapidly-expanding big data field, brought together NCDS members, faculty and students to share data-related projects, activities and ideas.

The Showcase began with a student poster session during breakfast, where students from NCDS academic institutions showcased their submitted posters on data-related projects and networked with industry and university professionals. The group then gathered to hear short presentations from each of the NCDS Data Science Faculty Fellows on the background, goals, and intended results of their research. Read more…