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By engaging high schoolers, public and private universities are looking to jumpstart efforts to build the future quantum workforce.
No specific estimates exist on how many jobs the U.S. expects to create in the quantum sector, but governments, industry and academia all agree they need to start building a pipeline of talent for those jobs now.
A report published last year by the federal government’s National Quantum Initiative on workforce development warned that the “shortage of talent constrains progress” in quantum, as the sector is currently “creating more job openings than can be filled” in academia, industry, national labs and government.
To build the quantum talent pipeline, some have realized they need to get started—earlier.
This week, around 65 high school students from Illinois descended on the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago for Quantum Quickstart, a one-week accelerated program. The course introduced students to the core concepts and applications of quantum engineering, and included lectures, theoretical discussions and tours of lab facilities.
Quantum technology is an emerging form of science that uses molecular-level quantum physics. In time, it is hoped that quantum computing can solve problems at a speed far beyond that of conventional computers, which could be useful in areas like cybersecurity, encryption and research. Having workers with quantum skills and knowledge will help the public and private sectors take full advantage of the technology.
Shuolong Yang, an assistant professor of molecular engineering at the Pritzker School and a co-founder of Quantum Quickstart, said while academics often focus on mentoring PhD students, it is imperative to help younger students.
“We quickly realized that to develop this area, we need not only the top scientists, but also we need to develop the future workforce, and this workforce development has to happen at different stages,” Yang said. “For the quantum program to have a future workforce, we have to start earlier.”
Yang said he hopes the program can help make Chicago a “quantum hub,” and demystify the still-evolving technology. Another motivation, added Peter Maurer, who co-launched the initiative and is also an assistant professor at the Pritzker School, was the need to solve physics’ “diversity problem.”
“We are actually missing out on a large fraction of potential workforce that could be included,” he said. “Quantum technology offers a unique opportunity to include people who would not necessarily think about doing a conventional physics degree.”
“What we want to do is show high school students that it's not complicated,” Maurer said. “We want to actively show that quantum is accessible.”
The report by the National Quantum Initiative says that to build the talent pipeline coordination is necessary “among U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, professional societies, nonprofit organizations, industry and international partners.”
Indeed, academia is partnering with corporate, nonprofit and public institutions. In written testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology last month, Dr. Emily Edwards, executive director of the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, touted the work of the National Q-12 Education Partnership.
Funded by a National Science Foundation grant and supported by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the partnership is “making progress on an initial framework for infusing quantum into K-12 classrooms,” Edwards said, which is available to teachers online.
But she said “significant work” lies ahead, including building teachers’ confidence in teaching quantum through training and professional development.
More informal ways to get young people interested in quantum are percolating as well. A YouTube series called Quick Quantum: For High Schoolers recently launched and is modeled after other scientific education channels like MinutePhysics and Veritasium.
Produced by the Chicago Quantum Exchange, the videos are designed to introduce young people to the various concepts behind quantum. Robby Weinbaum, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a series co-host, said the use of animations and real-world analogies help make it accessible, as does the emphasis on direct communication.
“These high school students that we're trying to reach out to with this, probably have seen some degree of quantum in their science classes,” he said. “But there's a concern or fear about calling it that because it will scare people away, because quantum is this big, mysterious, scary thing that just sounds super advanced.”
“It's always challenging for scientists, I feel, to communicate what they actually want to communicate to the public in a way that is digestible,” said co-host Katie Sautter, a quantum engineer and a former postdoctoral researcher at Argonne National Laboratory, a federally funded research center.
In addition to academia-led courses to introduce young people to employment in quantum, lawmakers and experts also are keen to see the federal government be a strong partner in educating the next generation. Dr. Celia Merzbacher, executive director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, called on the National Quantum Initiative in written testimony to provide education to current workers who are interested in pivoting into quantum.
“Such programs could leverage or expand existing programs that meet certain criteria offered by community colleges and other educational institutions and professional societies, in partnership with quantum companies,” she said. “Programs aimed at educating end users in addition to developers are especially needed in order to promote practical uses.”
Weinbaum said some of the best advances have already come from newcomers to the field, especially as quantum research continues to explore not only new areas but also how it fits in with existing theories of physics. By continuing to build a pipeline of young quantum enthusiasts, that momentum can continue.
“A lot of these really exciting new developments are happening from young researchers who are coming into the field with new perspectives and new ideas and are really understanding foundational new things about quantum mechanics, and about physics in general, that we didn't have before,” he said.