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NSF-funded QuSTEAM program awarded $5 million to broaden quantum science education for undergraduates

Sep 17, 2021, 10:51 AM

Quantum information science has the potential to enable breakthroughs and have far-reaching economic and societal impact, but there’s a missing link: the lack of a diverse, quantum-ready workforce.

A multi-institutional team of researchers and educators, including experts from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, seeks to address that shortage by taking a next step toward building transformative, modular quantum science degrees and certification programs that will change how quantum information science is taught throughout the United States. Led by Ohio State University, QuSTEAM: Convergent Undergraduate Education in Quantum Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics is a two-year, $5 million project funded by the National Science Foundation.

“We want to target students who may not initially have a strong interest in studying STEM topics,” said Eric Chitambar, an institutional lead on QuSTEAM and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UIUC. “We want to create curriculum that helps

increase awareness of quantum science and what it can do, as well as provide a pathway for entering the quantum workforce. More broadly, we want to create literacy around this topic, especially among those who may eventually go into the arts and humanities.”

Quantum computers could eventually tackle certain problems that today are difficult or impossible to solve, even for the most powerful high-performance computers. To fulfill that promise, a quantum-smart workforce will be needed to make advances in computing, sensing, and networking.

“We have leaders in quantum information and STEM education, and both of these groups independently do good work building undergraduate curriculum, but they actually work together surprisingly rarely,” said QuSTEAM lead investigator Ezekiel Johnston-Halperin, professor in the Department of Physics at Ohio State. “We are talking to people in industry and academia about what aspects of quantum information are most critical, what skills are needed, what workforce training looks like today and what they expect it to look like a couple years from now.”

QuSTEAM brings together scientists and educators from over 20 universities, national laboratories, community colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The initiative also has about 15 industrial partners, including GE Research, Honda, and JPMorgan Chase, and collaborates with leading national research centers to help provide a holistic portrait of future workforce needs.

In addition to Illinois and Ohio State, QuSTEAM includes the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University, all of which have partnered with local community colleges and regional partners with established transfer pipelines to engage underrepresented student populations. The group is also collaborating with the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center to recruit faculty from its network of over 20 partner colleges and universities, as well as Argonne National Laboratory. In all, the QuSTEAM team is composed of 66 faculty who have expertise in quantum information science and engineering, creative arts and social sciences, and education research.

Part of the difficulty in training such a workforce is the challenge of attracting students at the right time and in all the right places, says Emily Edwards, executive director of the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST).

“Most curriculum is aimed at advanced physics or computing undergraduate or graduate students, when in reality, we need to capture their interest and imagination when they are much younger,” said Edwards, whose NSF-funded program Q2Work will collaborate with QuSTEAM on increasing quantum awareness. “Students from all institutions need access to quantum courses, and QuSTEAM has program partnerships and a cross-disciplinary approach that will help make that happen.”

The team will build curricula consisting of in-person, online, and hybrid courses for the envisioned degree and certification programs — including pilot versions of the critical classes and modules that will be offered at the respective universities while the team continues to assess evolving workforce needs. QuSTEAM plans to offer its introductory class in Spring 2022, and a full slate of core classes for a minor by Fall 2022 or Spring 2023.

Following a Phase I planning grant, QuSTEAM was one of 10 teams selected for two-year, $5 million Phase II funding as part the NSF Convergence Accelerator 2020 Cohort, which supports efforts to fast-track transitions from basic research and discovery into practice and seeks to address national-scale societal challenges. With this funding, QuSTEAM will address the challenge of developing a strong national quantum workforce by instituting high-quality, engaging courses and educational tracks that allow students of all backgrounds and interests to choose from multiple paths of scholarship in the quantum area.