Collaborative Research: CSinParallel: Experiential Learning of PDC Through Sight, Sound, and Touch

Suzanne Matthews
Associate Professor
U.S. Military Academy

Need: Today’s desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones all contain multiple core processing units. Many people today also use cloud computing services for online shopping, sharing photos, and other conveniences. Multicore computers and cloud computing services are examples of parallel and distributed computing (PDC). Current computer science (CS) curriculum and ABET recommendations require every undergraduate CS student to learn about PDC, though most students do not get much exposure to these topics as undergraduates. To help students master the complexities of PDC, this iteration of the CSinParallel project developed software and curricular materials that combine two strategies for making PDC topics tangible and accessible: inexpensive single-board computers and teaching materials that use sight, sound, and touch. Guiding Question: Our project asked, Can engaging students’ senses (sound, sight, touch) improve student understanding of parallel and distributed computing concepts?Outcomes: Over the past four years, the CSinParallel project: 1) extended visual software (the Thread-Safe Graphics Library, TSGL) that allows students to see parallel computations in real-time; 2) created audio software (the Thread-Safe Audio Library, TSAL) that allows students to hear abstract PDC concepts and computations; 3) constructed inexpensive clusters using multi-core single-board computers (e.g. the Raspberry Pi) making PDC systems that are concrete and touchable; 4) collected and curated “unplugged” (i.e., no computer required) activities / metaphors from the literature to make PDC algorithms accessible to broad audiences (; 5) developed a free, interactive, on-line PDC textbook that is deployed through a combination of client-side and cloud-based systems; and 6) developed that contains a series of free, interactive, on-line teaching materials to aid the rapid adoption of PDC topics in classrooms. By using these teaching materials to explore PDC topics, CS students will be able to see and hear parallel and distributed computations and touch the hardware performing those computations.Broader Impacts: Broader impacts include: 1) strengthening and diversifying the U.S. cyber-workforce by improving the PDC skills of CS instructors and students nationwide (including those at minority-serving institutions); 2) expanding the community of PDC educators through faculty-development workshops (both multiday regional summer workshops and evening workshops at international conferences) that reached over 120 faculty; and 3) continued to expand with new features to support this growing community.


Joel C. Adams (Calvin University), Richard A. Brown (St. Olaf College), Elizabeth Shoop (Macalester College)