Enviro-Supercomputing Teens

Michigan students use EPA's high-powered computer for environmental modeling and research

Students returning to the classroom in the next few weeks can expect to be issued books, paper, pencils and other traditional supplies. Many will even have computers at their disposal. But a few dozen students will have access to a resource many college professors dream of getting their tenure-hungry hands on -- a supercomputer.

These ninth, 10th and 11th graders will be using the only supercomputer in the world that is dedicated to environmental research. At the Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Supercomputing Center in Bay City, Mich., select students are given a chance to use the facility for the same thing researchers around the world use it for -- to model environmental problems too complex for regular computers. For instance, to study the Potomac River, researchers must model the many tributaries that flow into the river, the surrounding watersheds, and the amount of acid rain and other man-made phenomena that affect the river environment.

The teens have used the supercomputer to study the role of Zebra Mussels and the incidence of PCBs in the Great Lakes, to investigate the impact of a local waste treatment facility, and to measure the distribution of heavy metals in the Saginaw Bay. Many of the students involved in the EarthVision program have had their work published and presented before scientific groups like the International Conference on Scientific Visualization and the International Conference on Mathematics and Modeling.

The educational program, in its second year of operation, is expanding. This fall, students in Cleveland, will also become part of EarthVision via a telecommunications link. The EPA hopes to make the program available nationwide someday. Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan operates the program for the agency. EPA has picked up 85 percent of the $850,000 spent on EarthVision so far.

The supercomputing center is operated by Martin Marietta, Bethesdam Md. The EPA uses it to predict how legislation or regulatory changes will affect the environment. The agency can then issue environmental regulations based on predictive models.

On a recent visit to the Bay City facility, EPA Administrator Carol Browner met with the EarthVision students. The students selected for the program go through competitive proposal writing. Teams of four students and two teachers are then selected from participating schools.

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