The Evolution of Quantum Education

Howard looks forward at the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center.

by Aaliyah Butler
Campus Gate with Flowers

How do you learn something as complex as quantum mechanics? By playing games. Through the IBM Quantum education and research initiative for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), students were guided on their learning journey by Qiskit, an open-source software development kit for working with quantum computers. With premium access to IBM quantum computers, Howard juniors and seniors used Qiskit to develop quantum games that they hope will be published and playable through IBM’s platform.

IBM Quantum’s HBCU initiative was launched a year ago in recognition that Black and Latinx students leave STEM programs at nearly twice the rate of their counterparts, largely due to the lack of support and access to resources as they pursue their academic goals, according to EAB, a best practices firm that uses research, technology and consulting to address challenges within the education industry.

“Long term, we are working to grow this curriculum to other STEM aspects on campus and even having a more general course for all Howard students,” says Thomas Searles, director of the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center.

The program language that Qiskit is based upon is now being integrated into the curricula of physics, computer science, electrical and computer engineering majors. Among the quantum games being developed, there is a West African version called Wonchawa. Playing Wonchawa helps students learn different aspects of quantum mechanics and develop rules that other quantum games have not considered yet.

Led by Howard University and 12 additional HBCUs, the multiyear investment was designed to not only prepare and develop talent from all STEM disciplines for the quantum future, but also provide STEM-based opportunities for these traditionally underrepresented communities.

In less than a year, an additional 10 HBCUs hopped on the quantum education train, including Florida A&M University, Norfolk State University, and the University of the District of Columbia, bringing membership to a total of 23 HBCUs. There are 20 faculty members and counting involved in quantum-related research at Howard. Due to this collaboration, 30 undergraduate students and 10 graduate students per year are supported in doing research with these faculty members and others from HBCU centers.

This collaboration increases opportunities for faculty and students, launches successful careers in the budding field of quantum computing, and overall prepares Howard to be in a better position to contribute as an American institution. The center appears to already be paying dividends as Howard students who have participated in the quantum programming were admitted to prestigious Summer STEM programs at Princeton and other institutions, furthering their education in Ph.D. programs.

“Like many other places around the world, people are catching on to the importance of quantum information,” Searles says. “Without doubt, Howard is the leader of the HBCU space.”

This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue.

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