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Put your head in the cloud

Speed read
  • NSF EAGER grant funds cloud computing to aid minority serving institution.
  • Cloud computing enhances remote sensing graduate course curriculum.
  • Broadening access to national HPC infrastructure makes the US more competitive and speeds discovery.

You’re familiar with the many scientific discoveries the US National Science Foundation (NSF) makes possible. But were you aware of their role in bringing students at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) into the scientific community?

That’s the message Linda Hayden wants you to hear. Hayden, professor in math and computer science at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), is partnering with the NSF to enhance course offerings with cloud computing capabilities.

“Clouds provide an easy-to-use environment that can best involve organizations like ours without a strong cyberinfrastructure,” observes Hayden. “We like the idea that cloud computing components can be added to our classes to enhance existing course offerings.”


ECSU is the recipient of an Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grant. It is being used to develop an online curriculum, tutorials, and other electronic resources. Bolstering graduate courses that analyze remotely sensed data is a particular focus for ECSU.

To ensure the success of this project, ECSU is working with Judy Qiu, computer science professor at Indiana University and the Association of Computer/Information Sciences and Engineering Departments at Minority Institutions (ADMI).

Remote sensing allows researchers to acquire information on objects or situations without physical contact. Remote sensing instruments include ground-penetrating radar, unmanned aerial vehicles, and satellites. These devices can accumulate large data sets in a short period of time, Hayden notes.

“Remote sensing data collection techniques have the potential to generate many terabytes of data. These tremendous data sets quickly outstrip the ability of desktop computers or small clusters. This makes high performance computing and cloud computing services necessary.”

As with many small colleges, historically black colleges & universities (HBCUs) often lack this computing ability, so the NSF EAGER grant will go a long way toward training ECSU students to interact with the larger scientific community.

Serving students

The NSF award has already had a broad impact. Five students have used the cloud computing enhancements and have passed the enhanced remote sensing course. ECSU’s future plan for the NSF grant involves creating a fully functioning remote sensing and cyberinfrastructure workforce development training facility.<strong>Cloudy forecast.</strong> Participants in the cloud computing seminar held at ADMI 2016. Courtesy Linda Hayden.

Immediate future plans, Hayden notes, include a cloud computing workshop at ECSU for ADMI faculty and graduate students from June 10-12th at the Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Education and Research on the ECSU campus. Indiana University faculty will assist with the instruction, and participants will focus their efforts on revamping their existing courses to include cloud computing resources. 

"Understanding cloud computing helps broaden our workforce pipeline." ~ Linda Hayden

These opportunities will help level the playing field for ECSU computer science students, a prospect that excites Hayden.

“Thanks to the NSF, we are enabling faculty members involved with minority undergraduate students to gain information about various aspects of cloud computing and then share this knowledge with their students through revised classes,” she says. “What’s more, scientific computing is an area with a growing number of high-paying employment opportunities, so understanding clouds helps broaden our workforce pipeline.”

The NSF investment in science and computation isn’t always about building bigger, faster, shinier machines. Democratizing access to these HPC resources is just as important. With the EAGER grant, ECSU and students from ADMI institutions get the computing access their science requires.

For more on NSF support for MSIs and HBCUs, read our coverage of Jetstream and of Chameleon.

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