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Working to eliminate the computing divide in higher education, Dr. Dhruva Chakravorty, Director for User Services and Research, Texas A&M High Performance Research Computing, is dedicated to building research partnerships within the community that extend past 4-year institutions and help a greater number of students gain the research skills they need to be successful. “There is a dire need for people with computing skills today,” says Chakravorty. “Along with R1 universities and larger institutions, community colleges, and 2-year institutions are essential in helping to build a computing workforce with advanced skills and knowledge.”

To better understand the computing practices of 2-year colleges and smaller institutions of higher education, the Building Research Innovation for Community Colleges (BRICCs) approach was created to examine the research and educational needs from advanced cyberinfrastructure in such institutional settings. “We recognized that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has several programs that these schools could benefit from, but for a variety of reasons, they did not have the capacity to complete the proposal preparation and submission process to receive funding,” explains Chakravorty, BRICCs principal investigator. “We look to help fortify relationships between larger universities and smaller institutions of higher education that can offer CI expertise and strengthen opportunities for funding support. Most importantly, BRICCs serves as a cooperative space to ensure the progression of computing and economic development.”

Understanding Current Computing Challenges

The BRICCs approach focuses on understanding the current computing challenges, collaborating with smaller institutions to facilitate solutions, and sharing these insights with the broader research community, BRICCs hosts virtual and in-person community workshops to explore avenues that can broaden the impact of advanced cyberinfrastructure on campus computing. “We began by engaging with CIOs and institutional administrators who were guiding the vision of the institution’s digital footprint, especially around academics and research,” explains Chakravorty. “We found there was a gap between what faculty wanted and what CIOs were able to deliver. Fortunately, everyone was willing to work together, and through the workshops, we could begin to build bridges between different groups.”

BRICCs continues to foster partnerships between knowledgeable cyberinfrastructure professionals and institutions and explore avenues to broaden the impact of advanced cyberinfrastructure on campus computing. “Our new objective is creating working groups that help enable collaboration between 2-year and 4-year schools,” explains Chakravorty. “We have partnered with schools on academic initiatives and have helped develop a Texas higher education micro-credentials program in research computing that will soon be accessible nationwide.”

Uniting Research Missions

As conversations continue amongst the research community, Chakravorty says more funding is becoming available for computing resources. “To take advantage of these grant opportunities, we are working to build a more collaborative approach. Previously, many research computing centers at institutions had a single person or project. The BRICCs approach aims to help unite institutions regionally, as well as form connections with other colleges and universities. Many times, larger 2-year institutions are on a similar journey as 4-year institutions and there are opportunities for both of them to interact and work together, promoting the success of each other’s initiatives.”

Among the biggest challenges facing smaller institutions as they try to expand their access to computing resources is finding people with the advanced knowledge and strategic acumen to bring these goals to life. “Finding research computing expertise can be a challenge,” says Chakravorty. “One area where support is needed is finding expertise in strategic planning and how to incorporate research computing and cyberinfrastructure initiatives into the larger strategic plan of a 2-year institution, as well as effectively communicating upward to leadership levels. Additionally, we must build regional collaborations and create teams that can help orchestrate and manage resources.”

Supporting Academic Research Goals

Among the organizations helping to increase access to advancing computing resources is the national research cyberinfrastructure (CI) ecosystem, ACCESS. “The program has done a tremendous job in democratizing infrastructure,” says Chakravorty. “I think BRICCs has also played a role in bringing awareness of the opportunity in the 2-year space and identifying pathways so programs like ACCESS can better support the academic and research community. We have a working group that is dedicated to building a cluster and deploying it for the regional 2-year institutions. On the academic side, we have another working group who is looking at how we monitor credentials and grant proposals in a collaborative way. We want to empower faculty at 2-year institutions to lead the process, while 4-year institutions are in more of a supplementary role.”

Chakravorty says BRICCs proudly engages students to share their input and insight on research computing at every workshop. “Our student engagement has gradually grown. In our first workshop, we had students from 2-year institutions give a very powerful talk about how they view research. We continue to involve students and incorporate their perspective and expectations, as they are the next generation of leaders in this field.”

“To take advantage of these grant opportunities, we are working to build a more collaborative approach. Previously, many research computing institutions were based around a single person or project. The BRICCs approach aims to help unite departments within an institution, as well as form connections with other colleges and universities. Many times, larger 2-year institutions are on a similar journey as 4-year institutions and there are opportunities for both of them to interact and work together, promoting the success of each other’s initiatives.”

– Dr. Dhruva Chakravorty
Director for User Services and Research
Texas A&M High Performance Research Computing

Creating a Skilled Workforce

Advanced computing and the availability of digital data have created countless opportunities for a variety of career paths and will require education and training at all levels, starting in high school. To expose more community college students to advanced computing and get them engaged in STEM disciplines, Texas A&M is currently exploring ways to build certification programs and summer school courses and offer micro credentials through 2-year institutions. “We want to approach workforce development on a community-wide basis and by improving information sharing for jobs and career paths, we hope to promote a more diverse set of institutions in the research computing community,” says Chakravorty. “In 2023, we will also host a workshop to discuss how to offer a platform or framework where research professionals can interact directly and coordinate research activities and campus-based computing resources.”

BRICCs aims to be a collaborative space to address similar challenges in advancing cyberinfrastructure adoption in research and educational settings. “Engaging with research and education networks (RENs) has been an important part of our strategy,” explains Chakravorty. “RENs offer a pathway for 2-year schools to work with 4-year institutions. Their concentration on the networking side compliments our academic and computing focus very well. It has been fantastic to see their model and apply their learning in the computing space; we are learning a great deal from their experience and expertise.”

Finding Community-wide Solutions

Looking ahead, BRICCs will continue to formalize their working groups and incorporate these collaborations with larger nationwide efforts. “We want to help people across the country,” says Chakravorty. “We learned early on that every state has a different structure for their 2-year institutions, but we have identified a common framework that can be taken from one state and applied to other institutions. Through our discussions with several CIOs, we see common challenges that they’re facing and we believe we can all work toward solutions that will benefit the greater good. We must find avenues where faculty at smaller schools can participate in research opportunities during the academic year and play an important role in the innovation ecosystem.”

“Edge is a very powerful force and Dr. Forough Ghahramani has been a tremendous contributor to helping our mission,” continues Chakravorty. “Edge participates on our weekly calls which help us balance regional versus national needs and gain insight into the challenges New Jersey institutions are facing. There are several exciting cyberinfrastructure initiatives taking place in that part of the country and we’re seeing strong connections developing through the Ecosystem for Research Networking (ERN). Many schools in New Jersey have several layers of networking, both human and computing, and are building pathways to help 2-year institutions. Edge has established itself as a partner and collaborator on projects across the State and with their fantastic board of advisors and engagement program; they act as an important model that BRICCs can emulate. We are looking for partnerships like we have with Edge to help more institutions in the research community and establish a greater national footprint.”

Finally, Dr. Ghahramani mentions, “The partnership with BRICCs and engagement in the BRICCs workshops has been invaluable for collaboration opportunities, learning more about the challenges and opportunities for community colleges and smaller institutions, as well as sharing information about the collaborations and communities that have been created in New Jersey and the Northeast region. One such example includes the partnership being explored between Edge, Rutgers University, and New Jersey Council of County Colleges (NJCCC) on a Cybertraining opportunity that addresses the need for a skilled workforce to support the advanced cyberinfrastructure for research computing and data, advanced networking, cloud services, and cybersecurity. The program aims to create a CI career pathway and to align with the New Jersey Pathway to Career Opportunities. The focus will be in four areas: systems facing, research facing, data facing, and cybersecurity. These skills are of interest for both academia and industry. There are clear synergies between the EdgeDiscovery mission and BRICCs and we look forward to continuing our work together.”