Training The Quantum Workforce

With quantum technology starting to take off, the burgeoning industry will require a quantum-aware workforce to help it reach its goals. As a member of the National Q-12 Education Partnership, the American Physical Society is helping to introduce quantum into high school classrooms, as  Laura Hiscott reports

Quantum equation

(Courtesy: Shutterstock/sakkmesterke)

Preparing for a future career starts long before college. In fact, we’re often asked what we want to be before we even start school. But what if there are options out there that we don’t know about yet? One exciting area that will have an ever-
increasing number of jobs in the near future is quantum information science and technology (QIST). Being relatively new, however, many students haven’t even heard of it.

This is where the National Q-12 Education Partnership comes in. Established in 2020 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Q-12 Partnership is a consortium of 16 organizations, including industry partners and professional societies, that want to raise awareness among K-12 students of quantum as a career option. Their shared goal is to create a good foundation for quantum education, and to improve equity and access to education to promote a diverse workforce down the road.

The NSF also funds a program called Q2Work, which is part of the Q-12 Partnership and provides the overall coordination for it. “We’ve spent the last year trying to understand what’s missing from quantum education at the K-12 stage and how to organize to fill those gaps,” says Emily Edwards, a physicist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who leads Q2Work and oversees the Q-12 collaboration.

While physics might be the most obvious quantum-related subject, Edwards notes that it’s important to introduce it elsewhere too. She sees two reasons for that approach. First, fewer than half of graduating high school seniors have taken physics. And second, QIST also draws on people with backgrounds in fields like computer science, math and chemistry. Q-12 is therefore working with teachers to identify where quantum could appear in these subjects too, as well as in the context of engineering disciplines.

One major long-term goal of the program is for every teacher in the US to have resources, tools and support to introduce quantum as part of their STEM curricula. Q-12 partners and the quantum education community are working towards this by developing the appropriate curriculum connections and lessons, and supporting professional development for teachers in each state. Though still in its early days, quantum science now appears in one state’s standards—Texas adopted this requirement on the recommendation of about 15 teachers when the curriculum guides came up for renewal in 2020.

Edwards hopes that, with or without standards, K-12 stakeholders across the country will realize that QIST is an increasingly important career area. But there are plenty of activities that can be done to increase awareness of QIST among students and communities in the meantime.

“Right now teachers, counselors and mentors can begin to introduce the idea of quantum as a career,” says Edwards. “Kids need to feel like that’s something they can go and study at college, and that can happen without having the theory of quantum mechanics taught in the curriculum.”

Creating Connections

Getting students interested in quantum is an area where APS can draw on its expertise in physics outreach projects and its knowledge of what STEM careers involve. To this end, Claudia Fracchiolla, who is head of public engagement at APS, is leading several activities as part of the organization’s contribution to Q2Work.

One of these is “Physicists To-Go,” a program that arranges for schools to have virtual visits from physicists, who give talks about their careers and answer students’ questions. Fracchiolla also helps to organize “Teachers’ Town Hall” events, during which APS public engagement staff speak with teachers to understand their needs and challenges around incorporating quantum, and to offer resources and ideas to support them.

These discussions have already sparked useful cooperation, with teachers advising which activities would be most suitable for their students. This helped to inform the planning of a “Quantum Crossing” event, held online in October 2021. Inspired by the game “Animal Crossing,” this involved quantum scientists from five companies—IBM, IonQ, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft and Quarks Interactive—setting up spaces in the virtual meeting place Gather Town. High school students could visit the different “rooms” to see a quantum tech lab, for example, and to talk one-on-one with scientists. “It’s important for students to see what it looks like,” says Fracchiolla, “as this helps them to imagine themselves working there and builds a sense of belonging.”

Besides enabling this communication, Fracchiolla also develops activities that introduce quantum concepts into classrooms. One way she does this is through the “Physics Quest” kits—a package of four activities that teachers can use in class. New kits are developed annually, and last year all four activities were focused on quantum physics. One activity teaches the concept of wave-particle duality, for example.

But bringing a topic like quantum to students has its own challenges given how abstract and intangible it can be compared with other topics. After all, while we can see some effects of quantum physics at a macroscopic scale, we can’t directly observe quantum phenomena. Another activity in the quantum Physics Quest kit addresses this challenge head-on—exploring what it means to develop a model or theory of something, and how you do that when you can see the effects but you can’t see what’s happening directly.

This is demonstrated by students being given a “mystery tube” that has strings emerging from the sides, but is closed at both ends so they can’t look inside it. The students are asked to investigate how the strings behave when they pull on different ends of them, and to come up with theories of how the strings might be configured inside the tube that would explain their observations. This serves as an analogy for how scientists might not be able to watch fundamental particles directly, but can infer physical principles from the macroscopic effects that they observe.

Sparking Curiosity

Perhaps an even bigger barrier to teaching quantum is that it has a reputation for being incomprehensible. “We’ve spent 100 years telling people that only a certain subset of the population—only the very smartest people—can understand it, and even they have trouble,” says Edwards, “so it can be hard to get people interested.”

To combat this, the other two activities in the Physics Quest kits are a board game and a card game, which seek to make the subject less intimidating by making it fun. The board game was developed by a collaboration between Durham University, UK, and Quarks Interactive, a company that creates resources to promote quantum literacy. Participants in the game learn how logic gates work and how quantum gates work, and then use that information to solve challenges where they start with one state and have to configure the gates to move into another state. This demonstrates the concept that classical gates have very specific paths to follow, whereas the path you follow with quantum gates depends more on the measurement of the state.

As for the card game, it was created by physicists Sophia Economou and Edwin Barnes from Virginia Tech. A bit like the board game, it teaches students what qubits and quantum gates are, as well as the concepts of superposition and entanglement. They can then use cards that represent quantum gates to create a circuit that transforms a given initial state into their desired final state.

So far, Fracchiolla has had positive feedback about the games. “The classes that have played it seem to have really enjoyed it,” she says. “They might not develop a deep understanding at that stage, but it puts QIST on their radar and gives them a positive experience of quantum, which might otherwise be intimidating. That helps us to change perceptions and spark some curiosity around it.”

Fracchiolla also notes the importance of the activities being self-contained and ready to implement, to avoid increasing the workload of busy teachers and ensure that those who have no previous knowledge of quantum physics can use the kits as well.

Teachers certainly see QIST as an important area, with the number signing up for the activities already having exceeded Fracchiolla’s initial goals. But it isn’t only teachers who can introduce high school students to quantum—Edwards encourages college students to get involved too. “Kids need to see the next stage,” she says. “Seeing someone five years older pursuing this area gives them confidence that they can do this too.”

So if you’re a college student studying quantum, consider taking part in a careers fair, or talking to a high school class about how you got there. You could help to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers advancing QIST.

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