Scientific Modeling and Visualization Classroom Planning Document

August 1995

Prepared by:

Christopher Beattie, Dept. of Mathematics, 540-231-8279,
Ron Kriz, Depts. of Engr. Sci. & Mech. and Matls. Sci. & Engr., 540-231-4386,
Calvin Ribbens, Dept. of Computer Science, 540-231-6262,

Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA 24061

Using the Classroom Some Examples

1. Introduction

The purpose of this document is to describe plans for a scientific modeling and visualization classroom at Virginia Tech. This classroom would directly meet the needs of courses that depend heavily on sophisticated, hands-on, interactive graphics, scientific visualization, and virtual reality hardware and software to develop and study models of physical phenomena. While the facility could conceivably function in an "open" laboratory mode during off-hours, thereby benefiting other courses and research, the primary purpose of the classroom is to provide a sophisticated instructional environment for regularly scheduled courses. Together with the Laboratory for Scientific Visual Analysis we will create an environment that will break barries in education and research using visual computing. This classroom will be linked with the proposed Virginia Tech Virtual Corporation which will create an environment that will support instruction, R&D, and jobs with our industrial partners. This effort will be linked with the present NCSA-VT Partnership and the proposed Advanced Communications and Information Technology Center.

Related to this planning document is our Educational Grant Proposal to SUN Microsystems Computer Company and Visual Numerics Inc. (formerly IMSL) who are invited to become industrial partners in our information technology future at Virginia Tech.

In the sections below we discuss the rationale for such a classroom, outline a proposed system of governance, and estimate the resources needed to establish and maintain the facility. A final section includes examples of courses which could be taught in the proposed classroom; these examples were contributed by faculty members from 8 different departments who have expressed interest in this proposal.

2. Rationale

The past decade has seen the rise of computational science as a major component of science and engineering. While computing has been an important tool in many disciplines for almost fifty years, the role of computation has grown especially significant with the more recent widespread availability of large-scale, high performance computers (i.e., "supercomputers", "massively parallel computers", etc.). For example, aircraft designers now use computational models to validate, and in some cases replace, wind tunnel experiments to study air flow by visualization around proposed designs. In this and many other disciplines computational methods have joined experimental and theoretical approaches as a third major paradigm for science and engineering. Clearly, it is important for both the research and instructional missions of the University that we provide leadership in this growing emphasis on computational science. There is already considerable expertise and research activity in computational. science among the faculty and graduate students. We must now find ways to bring computational science into the curriculum, at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Almost without exception, large-scale computational science problems produce and/or consume large amounts of complex data. Hence, scientific visualization has become an indispensable component of computational science, and has become, in fact, a research area in its own right. Without sophisticated visualization tools, huge and complex data sets can be overwhelming and nearly unintelligible. One particularly powerful and increasingly well-known example of visualization is virtual reality (VR). These systems have tremendous potential for applications across a huge and diverse spectrum: from molecular dynamics to astrophysics, from architecture to medicine, from technical training to popular entertainment. One cannot practice or teach modern computational science without visualization. Furthermore, fully incorporating visualization into a course can only be done well if the students are actually doing visualization as part of the course. The traditional paradigm--a lecture plus an open, unsupervised laboratory--is not sufficient. One of the authors of this proposal has taught a graduate level course in scientific visualization without the benefit of a fully equipped classroom. He used a projection system so that students could watch him do things during lecture, and he arranged for them to use the facilities of a research laboratory outside of class hours. But without the hands on and immediate availability of the visualization systems, it was very difficult for the students to fully participate in the learning process. The primary motivation for the proposed workstation classroom is to provide a closed laboratory and instructional environment where students can have hands-on, supervised experience with high performance computing and visualization systems, "learn by doing".

We list below several additional aspects of the rationale for the proposed classroom--some of which expand on this primary motivation and some of which suggest other important benefits.

Undergraduate Honors and Core Curriculum enrichment. Both the Honors program the Core Curriculum are always in need of new and innovative courses for undergraduates. Two of the authors of this proposal taught an Honors Colloquium in Spring 95 on High Performance Scientific Computing. While the response from students was very good, without a satisfactory workstation classroom the course was severely handicapped, particularly in trying to integrate visualization with the rest of the course. It is likely that this course will be offered again next year, by which time it is hoped that a better classroom situation is available. State-of-the-art resources will stimulate other unique courses for our best students as well.

Furthermore, visualization offers a wonderful new tool for communicating science to students from other disciplines, students who are often bored or intimidated by traditional chalkboard and laboratory experiences. While the present proposal is way too small to handle large service courses, we believe that it represents an important first step toward developing exciting new core courses in the sciences.

A benefit to a wide variety of courses. The proposed classroom is not at all limited to a narrow audience. Already, faculty who teach both undergraduate and graduate courses, from an extremely diverse set of areas, have expressed interest in using the facility. For some courses, the classroom would be used profitably for every regular meeting of the course; for others, scheduling only a few sessions per semester in the room would be of great benefit.

A model for further electronic classroom development. Technology in the classroom is growing trend, and one that holds promise for improved pedagogy and efficiency gains for the University. The "Phase II" process is looking to technology as one way to break the "credit-for-contact" paradigm. Although our initial proposal is small, we expect to learn a great deal about the benefits of electronic classrooms and about their creation and administration.

With planning for a new Advanced Communications and Information Technology Center well under way, as well as other initiatives, now is the time to begin gathering experience with high tech classrooms.

Research benefits for faculty and graduate students. While the primary focus of the classroom will be instructional, the knowledge and skills taught there are critical to a large number of research groups around the University. Furthermore, the classroom could be made available during evenings, weekends, and the summers for use by researchers.

Research opportunities for undergraduates. Scientific visualization is an area rich with interesting and relatively accessible research opportunities for undergraduates. Computational science and scientific visualization is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring a certain level of experience in computing and an application area. Many of our undergraduates do have the required background. The advanced undergraduate courses that could be taught in such a classroom would provide a wonderful place for students in mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences, and engineering to interact and learn together. And the potential for spawning undergraduate research topics is high.

Generate teaching modules to be used in other courses. It is widely recognized that developing courses that heavily integrate computational technology is a time-consuming and difficult task. Gains in efficiency don't necessarily come immediately. However, a significant potential benefit of designing courses for a classroom such as we are proposing is that they tend to spin off smaller instructional modules that can be used in other courses. As the University looks for ways to break the traditional "credit-for-contact" paradigm, developing quality computer-based instructional modules is certainly of increasing interest.

K-12 teacher training. Visualization of scientific processes offers a new dimension in communicating the excitement of science and vividly introducing K-12 educators to both the richness and perplexing complexity of natural and technological processes. While classroom experiments have long been the vehicle for this type of learning experience, they are often either unrealistically simple (and ineffective adjuncts to the material) or extremely difficult to prepare. All the features that have made computational science a critical tool in science and engineering contribute immediately to its utility as a teaching tool.

Statewide leadership and distance learning. Benefits in the longer term and at a greater distance are also possible. There is a tremendous need for good materials to expose a wide range of people to the excitement and power of modern computational science. Courses or modules developed at Virginia Tech could be offered in a distance-learning environment to other campuses, or for use at other state colleges and universities. As powerful workstations become more common and as networking improves at various institutions around the state, the possibilities are great for making high performance computational science and visualization available to a much wider audience. But in order for good materials to be developed, the skills and experience of leaders in the field--many of whom are already here and are using visualization and high performance computing in their research--must be brought into the classroom.

3. Governance

There are not a great number of examples across the University of a resource such as we are proposing: a specially-equipped classroom, of potential use to people from many departments and several colleges. Hence, finding precedents for governance is difficult. The thoughts below are simply one scenario that seems reasonable to us.

  1. The proposed workstation classroom should be a resource jointly controlled by the Colleges involved--presently this includes the Colleges of Arts a Sciences, Engineering, and perhaps Agriculture & Life Sciences.

  2. A steering committee of 4-6 faculty members, appointed by the respective Deans, will provide oversight and direction for the classroom. Their job will be to set policy, provide leadership in securing resources, and publicize results. They will determine access policies for the classroom and coordinate course scheduling with the University Registrar.

  3. A facilities manager, requiring a portion, regular staff position, will manage the day-to-day operation of the classroom, supervise (or handle personally) classroom support, deal with vendors, etc. The manager will be selected by the steering committee and will report to them.

  4. A flexible system of "cost recovery" will be instituted to help support the ongoing needs of the classroom. While this should remain flexible (e.g., contributions of space or equipment are as valuable as money), the steering committee must establish guidelines that determine how classroom use is allocated to various courses, and ensures the ongoing support and replacement of the equipment.

4. Resources

In this section we estimate the resources needed to establish and maintain the proposed workstation classroom.

Space: The Department of Chemistry has offered the use of 110 Davidson. The room is approximately 400 square feet and could be configured with about 12 workstations and the necessary projection equipment. Preliminary investigations indicate that only minimal work will be needed to prepare this room to house the classroom: it appears that power, air conditioning, and networking requirements will be easy to meet. A small interior partition will have to be removed. The chief drawback of the Davidson site is size: a classroom with at most 12 workstations would be only a prototype of the kind of facility that would be ideal. If other, larger space becomes available (e.g., in McBryde) it should be seriously considered.

Personnel: It is estimated that a half-time staff position would be sufficient for the facilities manager. Additional personnel, in the form of teaching assistants or other staff members, would be needed if the classroom was to be available in an open lab mode in the evenings or on weekends.

Hardware, software, etc: A gross estimate, based on assuming a single large server and 10 high-end workstations, is $200,000 for initial hardware and software. Depending on the facility, there would be some additional startup costs for renovation and furnishings as well. On-going support for maintenance and eventual upgrades would likely average in the neighborhood of $50,000 annually.

5. Using the Classroom Some Examples

Below are listed several examples contributed by various faculty members of courses which could immediately benefit from the proposed workstation classroom. Since first drafts of this document were circulated in early 1994, several additional faculty members have expressed interest as well.

Chris Beattie (Mathematics) and Cal Ribbens (Computer Science).
Professors Beattie and Ribbens offered an Honors Colloquium in
UH3004 High Performance Scientific Computing in Spring 1995. The main goal of this course is to give undergraduate students an understanding of high-performance computing systems and the algorithms designed to run on them without divorcing these issues from the motivating problem contexts. Students are given a sense both of where computing fits into the work of science and of where science fits into the work of computing. The course includes a substantial emphasis on using modern scientific visualization tools and depends heavily on a closed lab environment. It is hoped that a permanent advanced undergraduate course will evolve from the initial Honors course.

Yvan Beliveau (Civil Engineering).
Both an undergraduate course in Construction Management, and a graduate course in Construction Automation, could immediately benefit from occasional use of the proposed classroom.

David Bevan (Biochemistry a: Anaerobic Microbiology).
Professor Bevan has recently been offering a 5000 level course, Molecular Modeling of Proteins and Nucleic Acids, which depends heavily on visualization. Enrollment has had to be very limited because students have access to only one sufficiently powerful workstation. With the proposed facility, Professor Bevan could come closer to meeting the demand for the course, and could incorporate more molecular visualization in undergraduate courses as well. At present, this is done primarily via demonstrations with little hands-on training due to the lack of sufficient workstations. Molecular modeling also is an area that would benefit tremendously from access to a virtual reality facility. The ability to visualize molecules using VR allows much better understanding of molecular structure and function. One area of obvious application is in drug design, which is one of the topics that is included in the molecular modeling course.

Roger Ehrich (Computer Science).
CS 5814, Digital Picture Processing, is a popular course which depends heavily on sophisticated graphics. Until now students have used the facilities of the Spatial Data Analysis laboratory outside of class hours. However, this facility is being phased out. Having a workstation-equipped classroom would allow the issues and tools of image processing to be taught in a much more dynamic and immediate fashion.

Ed Fox (Computer Science).
A new senior level course in hypermedia and multimedia is being offered in Spring 1995. It is likely that this will become a permanent course. The workstation classroom is ideal for this course. In addition, the regularly offered CS 5604, Information Storage and Retrieval, could benefit substantially from occasional class meetings in the facility.

Richard Gandour (Chemistry).
The Department of Chemistry needs a workstation laboratory to provide their majors and honors students with experience in molecular modeling and design. Students in the organic and physical chemistry courses will use the laboratory to solve problems and conduct experiments. They will also use the workstations for laboratory simulations of real-life challenges; e.g., risk analyses in decisions concerning the environment. Molecular design for new materials and therapeutic agents represents the frontier of chemical sciences. Senior undergraduates will take a molecular modeling course, which is similar to that currently offered to graduate students in Biochemistry. This course will include force-field, quantum chemical, and Monte Carlo methods and will provide introductions to modeling new materials as well as therapeutic agents.

Zafer Gurdal (ESM).
Professor Gurdal has been actively using computers in the classroom for two undergraduate courses and will be extending the usage to two other courses. During the past year he used a notebook computer in every lecture of the ESM 2004 "Mechanics of Deformable Bodies." In addition to having all the lecture notes in electronic format, a number of example problems were solved in the classroom using Mathematica utilizing its symbolic manipulation and graphics capabilities. The second course was a new course AOE/ESM 4984 "Design and Optimization of Composite Materials" which is approved as a regular cross-listed course between the ESM and AOE departments. Again ninety percent of the lectures of this course had computer based presentations involving demonstration of specialized analysis and optimization programs that are used for engineering design. These two courses can immediately be scheduled in a classroom with workstations, allowing the students to work through the example problems in the classroom and gain hands-on experience in running the specialized programs. The need for an electronic classroom is best exemplified by a student who started bringing his personal notebook computer to the lectures last semester in ESM 4984. The two courses that this activity will be extended to are AOE/ESM 4084 "Engineering Optimization," in which students will be participating in a project for multidisciplinary design of advanced vehicles, and AOE/ESM 5161 "Structural Optimization." Efforts are underway to computerize these two courses so that they can be conducted in a classroom with workstations.

Michael Hyer (ESM).
The Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics teaches Computational Methods (ESM 3074) to sophomores in ESM and AOE. The course focuses on having the student understand issues such as root finding, matrix inversion, regression analysis, interpolation, numerical integration and differentiation, etc. Clearly, students at this level do not have a lot of engineering courses from which to draw physical examples. Therefor, the fundamental principles must be introduced and simple problems formulated which require numerical solutions. As the students may have had little or no exposure to some of the physical concepts that must be introduced (e.g., heat transfer in one dimension), the use of graphics is extremely valuable (e.g., the temperature distribution along a rod). It would definitely be worthwhile to have several sessions of 3074 in an workstation-equipped classroom to expose the students to the computational and graphics capabilities of this level of equipment, to provide them with early hands-on experience with sophisticated computers, and to stress the importance of compatibility and scalability. With most engineering students having IBM-based equipment, a disk written by a computer in their dorm can be read by the workstation in the classroom, their program executed, and graphics displayed much more dramatically than on their personal computer. In addition, the program written on their personal computer can be scaled up with very little effort to run a bigger problem on the classroom workstation. Thus, with an workstation-equipped classroom, sophomores will have exposure to very high-level computing equipment, the use of which will better illustrate important engineering principles early in their education.

Ron Kriz (ESM and MSE).
Professor Kriz, along with Gordon Miller, Director of the Multimedia Lab, has taught a special study course ESM 5984 Scientific Visual Data Analysis and Multimedia. As mentioned above, lab support for this course has been provided by the Visualization and Multimedia Labs, but only on a restricted and out-of-class basis. Scheduling this course in a workstation classroom would immediately make it a much more effective learning experience.

Professor Kriz will also use this classroom extensively for MSE 2094 Analyitic Methods in Material Science and ESM 5344 Wave Propagation in Solids where he has already incorporated new material into these courses that require students use software that is unique to Unix worstations.

Timothy Pickering (Assistant Director, NSF Center for Polymeric Adhesives a Composites).
The proposed facility would yield great possibilities for developing educational short courses covering various aspects of visualization, scientific modeling, multimedia, etc. directed at off-campus audiences. There is interest among a number of faculty in developing such short courses but little action has resulted because there is no suitable facility on campus to provide the necessary hands-on training. The visualization classroom would solve that problem. There is considerable demand for such training in industry and Virginia Tech could provide a valuable service to the community while at the same time earning some revenue to help maintain and improve the classroom over the long term.

There are other programs where the classroom would be of benefit as well. The Center gives short courses underwritten by the NSF and other agencies (e.g., Faculty Enhancement Workshops for faculty at non-research institutions), and we also have an active summer program to provide research experiences to undergraduate students. We would like to be able to use a facility such as the one being planned as part of these programs. A typical example might be to introduce faculty to resources available via the Internet and give them some experience in obtaining files via ftp and then using them on the workstations.

John Tyson (Biology).
Professor Tyson would like to use the proposed facility occasionally for both teaching and research needs. For example, he teaches a course in Mathematical Biology which could benefit from a well equipped computer classroom several times during the term. Also, his graduate students and postdocs would profit from access to good graphics workstations.


R.D. Kriz
Virginia Tech
August 1995