The brightest ideas often occur in the classroom or lab. Great collaborations often happen on college campuses behind closed doors or at the café over a cup of coffee.
The plan that earned a trio of Cal State San Marcos professors a recent grant was born in an unusual place: a hallway conversation three years ago.
Physics professors Justin Perron and Charles De Leone and math professor Shahed Sharif learned in December that they were one of three groups to earn a grant from the American Physical Society Innovation Fund.
Their project, “Bringing Quantum Information Science to Diverse Undergraduate Populations,” is for two years for approximately $82,000. It aims to bring together faculty in the California State University system and other primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) to study the state of undergraduate Quantum Information Science and Technology (QIST) education, identify the challenges associated with implementing QIST curriculum at said institutions, and develop strategies to deal with these challenges.
And it started with hallway chats.
“After a brief chat with Chuck about something I was doing in my lab he mentioned that Shahed was interested in quantum information science and we should all meet up and chat to see if our interests had any overlap,” Perron said. “That turned into weekly meetings and those discussions led to this effort. It’s great working at CSUSM. I really like the culture we’ve got here. Everyone is supportive and always willing to take the time to chat. This whole thing started with just hallway conversations with colleagues.”
The problem as Perron sees it is that education and workforce training in QIST mostly exists at the graduate and postdoctoral levels, and mostly at large research institutions like Harvard and MIT. If these programs can be brought to smaller institutions with fewer resources – perhaps even at the K-12 level – the impact could be monumental.
The CSU system is ideal for this type of intervention because it serves such a diverse student population.
“Absolutely,” Sharif said. “Underrepresented communities are by definition an untapped resource. There are hundreds of undiscovered diamonds in the rough out there, and the mission of the CSU is to give them the chance to shine.”
For De Leone, it’s about creating a space to include QIST as a significant part of the CSU curriculum. Not just because it provides more opportunities, but for the fact the system’s graduates often go on to the world’s best postgraduate programs or directly to innovative companies.
“We know that our graduates end up everywhere from Harvard to UCSD and Silicon Valley to IBM,” he said. “Therefore, it only makes sense to provide our students with the latest knowledge in the field. So while students in the CSU are on a trajectory to achieve amazing things, they don’t always come from privileged backgrounds. When we prepare curriculum for our students, we need to take that into account.”
Follow-up support for faculty implementing QIST curricula will be provided in the form of online learning communities. Involving the faculty from CSU and other PUIs will ensure the underrepresented populations they serve are included in the development of the QIST workforce, thereby helping create a diverse and demographically representative community from its inception.
Some of the money will go to hosting a workshop to help inform faculty about current efforts in the QIST education and to support faculty as they bring what they learn back to their home institutions.
Groups of about eight faculty members will meet virtually every other week to discuss their efforts. They can discuss any issues they’re having like where in the curriculum to introduce certain topics, or techniques and activities that are effective at conveying certain concepts.
“If we can provide knowledge and support to faculty at these smaller primarily undergraduate institutions we’ll be lowering some of the barriers they face when trying to include QIST in their curriculum,” Perron said. “By providing opportunities to get involved with QIST to the diverse and often underserved communities at these institutions we’ll be bringing those students into the QIST community. Doing this now, when the QIST community is still new and developing, will hopefully help make it more demographically representative from the start and avoid some of the representation issues that exist in so many fields of science.”
That support could have ripple effects into the workforce. According to Perron, the QIST field is expected to have a large impact on the world’s economy. Both government and private sectors have begun focusing on and investing in this space.
Said De Leone: “Our whole current system of encryption is vulnerable to quantum computing. So to keep any secret online will require a good understanding of quantum computing algorithms. Second, there are many problems that would take a very long time, or be essentially impossible to solve with a classical computer that are open to solution with a quantum computer.”
The investments of time, money and energy are expected to lead to large-scale economic growth and countless new opportunities.
The stakes are high, but the possibilities are wide-ranging.
And at CSUSM, it started with small talk in the hallways.
“Justin, Chuck, and I began weekly meetings a couple years ago just so we could chat about quantum computing,” Sharif said. “At the time, we didn’t know a ton about the topic. Our meetings were just an opportunity to get together and have fun learning. This project rose organically out of the rapport we developed in our weekly discussions.”
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