Rewarding. Difficult. Inspiring. Those were some of the words student participants used to describe their experiences in the inaugural Advanced Computing for Social Change Challenge in the Pacific, hosted earlier this spring by Chaminade University’s Data Science, Analytics and Visualization program.
Dr. Rylan Chong, director of the program, said about 20 students from across the Pacific—including Saipan and Guam—participated in the remote, week-long event along with six undergraduate mentors.
The challenge in March was held in coordination with similar events scattered across the country, Chong said, and with support from Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) and Texas Advanced Computing Center, whose supercomputer was used by student participants.
Chong said the challenges are meant to test participants’ data analysis and interpretation skills, creativity, innovation, and ability to work under pressure. Participants also get invaluable training and mentorship—all as part of a broader effort to help them connect real-world data to actionable solutions.
Over the course of the week, students identified a research question, pored over the relevant data, arrived at results, created data visualizations, and then presented their work. Along the way, they also attended workshops on everything from statistics to text mining in order to hone their skills.
He said the projects students worked on included a study of COVID-19 in Hawaii and an exploration of native birds of Haleakala. “Each project provided data sets for participants to derive their project from,” he said. “The data sets included thousands of records and results were used to inform researchers.”
He added that the underlying theme of the challenge was about building capacity and learning communities in the Pacific to “harness the power of technology and data to address” challenges.
Chaminade Data Science student Sarah Carroll ’24 jumped at the chance to participate in the competition to build on her skills and apply them. She focused on COVID-19 in Hawaii, text-mining Twitter data to analyze community sentiment on the virus and the government response.
“It was very rewarding to see that I am capable of implementing what I learned,” Carroll said, adding that she was thrilled to be able to put together a project and get immediate feedback on her presentation. “This experience really boosted my confidence in working with data.”
Punohu Keahi is a first-year student at Chaminade, majoring in Environmental Studies, and participated in hopes of learning more about how to turn big data sets into results that communities can actually use to make decisions. “My biggest reason for joining this program was to step out of my comfort zone,” Keahi said. “Getting this experience is something I will never forget.”
Keahi opted to dive into data from the Haleakala National Bird survey.
“I love native birds and I’m interested in knowing more about the different factors that could have caused the fluctuations in the bird population,” she said. “My biggest challenge during this program was figuring out how to code and then create different scatter plot and bar graphs.”
One of the greatest thrills? Using a supercomputer for the first time.
Armando Luna, a Data Science student at Chaminade, said the competition was tough—but a worthwhile experience. “The biggest challenge was ensuring I would have a presentable and complete project in time,” Luna said. “However, we had fantastic mentors who helped us through the week.”
Mentors like Dairian Balai ’22, who said she wanted to volunteer because of her own positive experiences at Advanced Computing for Social Change Challenges on the mainland. She was in the 2019 ACSC cohort and said the mentors were key to ensuring the event was filled with both learning and fun.
She said many of the students participating in this year’s challenge didn’t have any experience with coding, programming or working with big data sets. That meant they needed some extra help to ensure they didn’t get overwhelmed. “The students persevered and created incredible posters,” she said.
She added that what she enjoyed most about being a mentor was watching students grow in the challenge. “You can tell how much confidence they gained,” Balai said. “I also like seeing those great ‘aha!’ moments when they’re running into issues and then they finally make a breakthrough.”