New doors opening: UChicago programs aim to help build the quantum workforce of the future

michael rodgers teachquantum

Quantum technology is on the verge of changing the world, according to David Awschalom, Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME).

Quantum sensing, communications, and computing will revolutionize industry and the economy, enabling everything from impenetrable digital security to more powerful, energy-efficient electronic devices to new ways of diagnosing and treating disease.

"The impacts will likely be far greater than we can imagine," Awschalom said. "In the early days of computers, no one was thinking about the internet, or mobile phones, or even bar codes, but today they're ubiquitous. We're at that early stage in quantum engineering."

The quickly advancing field means that there's a corresponding need for a large pool of quantum-trained researchers and workers: In the next decade, it's projected that there will be a million quantum job openings in the United States alone.

Awschalom envisions a more diverse STEM workforce ready to fill those positions. Today, according to the National Science Foundation, female, Black, and Latinx workers are all underrepresented in STEM.

"Our ambitious goal is to establish diversity, equity, and inclusion as foundational priorities for quantum. Because this is a new field, we have an opportunity to reinvent how the next generation enters and develops the discipline," Awschalom said.

Teaching quantum concepts early is key to sparking students' interest, but the newness of the field also means that quantum isn't currently part of most high school and undergraduate science curricula. Three PME outreach programs, designed to expose a wide range of students to quantum, are changing the landscape.

Quantum Quickstart: Planting the seeds of quantum

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Luis Garcia in Quantum Quickstart program at UChicago

Luis Garcia, a junior at Horizon Science Academy in Chicago's McKinley Park neighborhood, loves physics and chemistry. When his guidance counselor told him about PME's Quantum Quickstart program in early 2022, he applied right away. "Quantum isn't really a topic in my classes, but I knew it would be interesting," he said.

Quantum Quickstart is a free, intensive, one-week program on the UChicago campus for Illinois high school students interested in STEM. Participants learn from world-renowned quantum researchers, tour quantum labs, and get personalized advice about college applications and career paths.

They also get a taste of college life by staying in a dorm for the week — "one of the best parts" of the program, Garcia said, along with meeting new STEM-focused friends — and take field trips that showcase the city, including an architectural boat tour and a visit to the Museum of Science & Industry.

PME professors Shuolong Yang and Peter Maurer were Garcia's instructors for the week. "We got to see a lot of experiments, especially about radiation and the behavior of waves," he said. "And the professors were so welcoming.

"Their methods of teaching are very different from my high school teachers' — I was really impressed by the way they tried to connect all the dots and also tell us about the history of quantum."

A junior this year, Garcia plans to continue pursuing his interest in STEM, likely by going to medical school. And he enjoyed the Quantum Quickstart experience so much that he plans to apply to UChicago next year.

TeachQuantum: Creating quantum ambassadors

Hannes Bernien, assistant professor of molecular engineering at PME, is a quantum researcher whose work focuses on new ways to engineer systems that could lead to groundbreaking technology like ultra-secure communication networks.

But not so long ago, he was just a high school kid with an interest in physics. "I had a really good high school teacher who set me on the path" to learning about quantum, he says. "I am really grateful for that teacher."

Bernien pays his gratitude forward by serving as an instructor in Quantum Quickstart, the Open Quantum Initiative undergraduate fellowship program, and the TeachQuantum program for high school teachers.

Through TeachQuantum, developed by quantum researcher and PME Assistant Professor Tian Zhong as part of the National Science Foundation’s multi-institutional Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN), teachers are immersed in PME quantum research labs over the summer while developing lessons and activities to bring back to their classrooms. In Chicago, the multi-year program, now in its second year, focuses on teachers from South Side schools that serve mostly students of color in Kenwood, Woodlawn, Hyde Park, Englewood, and South Chicago.

Participants connect with researchers and a cohort of their peers and learn to be ambassadors for quantum, working collaboratively to develop quantum-focused STEM activities and lessons to bring back to their classrooms. "Very few things have more impact than high school teachers and their classes — they reach hundreds of students and colleagues," Awschalom said.

TeachQuantum participant Michael Rodgers, a computer science teacher at King College Prep in Kenwood, says that he and the other members of his cohort have had great success building quantum concepts into their lesson plans and spreading the word about the field among their colleagues.  

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Michael Rodgers in TeachQuantum program at UChicago

"I told my fellow teachers to talk to their computer science colleagues about quantum and see how they could integrate it into what they're doing," Rodgers said. "And they came right back to tell me that I should talk to my school's physics teachers about doing joint lessons."

While the teachers are learning, the faculty and graduate students who work with them in the lab are learning, too.

"TeachQuantum helps us build long-term relationships with teachers, so we can get feedback and rely on their advice about developing the most effective programs for high school students," Bernien said. "It's exciting to see these programs start to feed into each other."

Open Quantum Initiative: A path to a more inclusive quantum workforce

The Open Quantum Initiative (OQI) Undergraduate Fellowship launched in 2022, welcoming a dozen college students from underrepresented backgrounds to quantum labs at midwestern institutions. Fellows spent the summer at UChicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and The Ohio State University. 

Developed mainly by graduate students and early-career researchers with an interest in building a diverse and inclusive quantum workforce, the 10-week residential program is open to undergraduates majoring in quantum-related fields such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and electrical engineering. Fellows receive a stipend, on-campus housing, and travel expenses.

The program recruited a dozen fellows from institutions around the nation, including minority serving institutions and colleges, such as historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions, where research opportunities for students are limited. Almost 70% of the fellows are Latinx, or Black; half are women, and half are the first in their families to go to college. They each represent a different college or university across the nation, including some within the city of Chicago, such as Chicago State University and Wilbur Wright College.

Fellows develop research skills while completing a research project, meet one-on-one with a mentor and in groups with other members of their cohort, and present their projects to their peers and instructors at the end of the summer.

The program continues through the academic year with virtual mentoring and cohort meet-ups, presentations about quantum topics, and workshops on skills like résumé writing and interviewing for jobs.

To help them see the wide range of possible career paths, fellows also have opportunities to visit top industry facilities, including IBM’s quantum research lab in New York, and multiple chances to meet and network with people who have quantum-related jobs in academia and industry. 

"One student said that this program changed her whole way of thinking — she never realized that scientists are actually normal people," Awschalom said with a laugh.

"You can hear a pin drop when someone visits to talk about what they do at places like IBM and JP Morgan Chase and Google, and what it's like to work in a corporation as a quantum expert.

"There are new doors opening where the students never even knew there were doors, and there are many jobs in these organizations."

Nearly 150 students applied for the twelve available OQI fellowships in 2022. Thanks to additional funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and matching dollars from participating institutions, more than fifteen additional fellows are expected to join the program next year.

Continuing connections

As these programs take root, Bernien says, there are many opportunities for them to cross-pollinate and increase their impact.

He and his colleagues ensure that participants connect with those in other programs; for example, Quantum Quickstart participants attended the OQI fellows' presentations in August. And an annual community science festival that would bring together participants from all three programs to showcase their work is in the planning stages.

Involving the larger South Side community is important, Bernien said. "At any university, you can get to feel like you are in a bit of a bubble and not so aware of the community around you. In engaging with the community, that bubble gets a little more permeable," and more people get the message about what quantum means for the future.

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