Inspiring a new generation to pursue quantum
The National Research Council (NRC) estimates that by 2040, the quantum technology industry could employ up to 229,000 people. To meet the growing needs of this bourgeoning economy for a qualified workforce, we need to start thinking about training the next generation including in quantum programming.
When the Institut quantique (IQ) launched its IBM Quantum Hub in June 2020, the newly formed team took it upon itself to engage with young people on emerging quantum opportunities. As such, developing a series of quantum programming workshops aimed at the college student community seemed natural. In the midst of a pandemic, IQ had no idea that this initiative would generate such a buzz.
A challenge and an opportunity
The idea for the workshops came from Ghislain Lefebvre, who is responsible for developing partnerships for the IBM Quantum Hub at IQ. He quickly saw a unique opportunity to use the quantum computing platform to introduce young people to quantum programming. A lot of groundwork was done to prepare the workshops. Ghislain met with several CEGEPs during the summer of 2020 to discuss content and their expectations.
The positive reaction of the teaching staff and the student community proved Ghislain Lefebvre right. He describes the process: “For me, it was obvious that in order to interest young people and make them want to explore new horizons offered by quantum computing, we had to offer a practical experience. With access to our IBM Quantum Hub at IQ and the launch of our Quantum Curious initiative in the fall of 2020, the timing seemed perfect. The commitment of the CEGEPs and the participation of their student communities far exceeded my expectations.”
With the field still in its infancy, there is very little access to training material in quantum programming for young people. A great deal of creative work awaited the quantum computing developers from the IBM Quantum Hub at IQ, Maxime Dion and Jean Frédéric Laprade. They set about developing the content for the series of three workshops in French and English, including the basic concepts of quantum science, the rudiments of quantum programming and the usefulness of linear algebra for quantum computing.
“To introduce quantum at the college level, we had to start with something fairly concrete. We chose to use a familiar quantum phenomenon: light. From this, we were able to naturally introduce the purely quantum concepts of superposition and entanglement that are at the heart of quantum computation. In the end, we came up with a narrative that is both accessible and rigorous, without getting bogged down in mathematics, allowing us to put into practice the key concepts of quantum programming,” explains Maxime Dion.
The workshops enabled IQ to meet with students in order to present the key concepts of quantum science and their applications from a new perspective. From September 2020 to February 2021, the team delivered its workshops to more than 400 people from seven CEGEPs, illustrating the growing interest for quantum.
“I was impressed by the curiosity and enthusiasm of our audience! Seeing that quantum computing was within their reach and accessible in the cloud, I think it inspired many to go further and start their own project. The experience was quite conclusive, and I hope to be able to repeat it ” remarks Jean Frédéric Laprade.
The testimonies of some of the people who attended the workshops are in line with Jean Frédéric’s comments. For Sophie, a student at Cégep Limoilou, “it allowed me to learn a lot about a subject that I didn’t know and I would like to learn more because of the many things that can be done with quantum computing and the progress that could be made in the future.”
For Simon, a student at Cégep de Maisonneuve, “It was really interesting, I learned a lot during the two workshops. They opened my eyes to quantum information and I plan to learn more about the subject in the coming years.”
Workshops that go the distance
For CEGEP teachers, these activities allowed them to apply concepts that are often very theoretical while helping to make young people aware of the potential applications that the development of quantum computers will allow.
For Melisande Fortin-Boisvert, a mathematics teacher at Cégep de Maisonneuve, the workshop was a success: “The students in my program greatly appreciated the workshops offered by the Institut quantique. The presentation was clear, inspiring and Jean Frédéric was able to captivate the audience. While learning about quantum programming, those who participated were able to discover applications of their linear algebra courses and, thanks to the IBM Q platform, were able to test their program on a real quantum computer. A perfect blend of theory and practice! ”
In parallel with the CEGEP activities, the workshops were also given to nearly 140 undergraduate students from various Quebec and Canadian universities, notably during McGill University’s Hackathon 2020 and at an event organized by the Canadian Mobility and Aerospace Institute (CMAI).
For Catherine, a mechanical engineering student at Polytechnique Montréal, this was a first contact with quantum science, which complements her field of study. “I wish to continue to deepen and see the possibilities that this field offers both from a personal and professional point of view.”
The excitement shown by the student community so far is encouraging for the team and their work. It’s safe to assume that another series will follow in 2021 – stay tuned!