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
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.