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How Are Universities Preparing for Quantum Computing?

While the widespread use of quantum computers across industries for a variety of applications appears to be years away, some universities are beginning to beef up education and research to prepare for the future.

Illustration of a human brain in a computer chip.
As researchers continue making strides toward building quantum computers that will perform computations exponentially faster than today’s technology, universities like the University of Maryland (UMD), University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) and Dakota State University (DSU) are working to familiarize students with the emerging technology through new education and research programs.

According to UTC Vice Chancellor for Research Reinhold Mann, UTC is building up its programming related to quantum technology, which includes a new certificate program that allows students across mostly science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors to graduate with a certificate in quantum information science and technology. He said the university’s initial focus is on helping students in STEM fields get their feet wet when it comes to learning more about the emerging field.

Mann noted that the university’s efforts coincide with the recent launch of the Chattanooga Quantum Collaborative (CQC), a nonprofit organization that aims to spearhead the “development of a thriving quantum ecosystem” in the Chattanooga and Hamilton County area and help modernize the region’s tech infrastructure. He said the university will play a role in the initiative by engaging and networking with the quantum community through events such as UTC’s annual CoMobility Summit in May, which will bring together researchers and regional tech professionals to discuss how quantum technology could impact the business sector moving forward.

Whether through changes to curriculum or initiatives like these, Mann said the main goal is to get more discussions going about how quantum technology and AI will change how work takes place across industries.

“We have realized that there’s got to be a way to introduce this topic earlier in the undergraduate curriculum than is traditionally done,” he said. “Our short-term goal is to be able to offer a minor in quantum technology to students in traditional STEM disciplines’ degree programs, so the first step we took toward that is to offer in the computer science curriculum a graduate course on quantum computing for computer scientists. Then, we are also offering a credit certificate to mostly STEM students … it basically introduces the topic, it talks about why this is a national priority and what the opportunities [of the technology] are.”

Pat O'Shea, director of quantum education programming at the University of Maryland, said his university has embarked on similar plans recently to integrate quantum knowledge into their curriculum, and to ramp up research relating to quantum tech. The university also recently worked with its spin-off company IonQ, which develops quantum devices, to launch the National Quantum Laboratory (QLab), described in a news release as a quantum research center that aims to “build the next generation of quantum talent” and make the university a major national hub for research and education in quantum technology.

“What we’re doing here in Maryland is not just looking at how to change computer science education. We’re looking at how we change education and its application in the real world,” he said. “We’re creating an interdisciplinary program. … Initially, we’re starting with [integrating quantum knowledge into] engineering and the sciences broadly.”

O'Shea said one of the university’s main focuses is preparing cybersecurity professionals for work in the quantum age. He added that the university is “not just working on quantum computing, but on broad quantum technologies, including communication, measurement, detection and cryptography.”

“We’re not just teaching students about quantum mechanics. We’re preparing them to think in ways that bridge the classical- and quantum-computing worlds,” he said. “We educate our students to be creative quantum explorers, not just quantum tourists.”

O'Shea said that another one of UMD’s major goals in this area is to provide more students with a basic understanding of quantum principles. He added that the university will also work with tech companies involved in quantum computing to help students build in-demand skills.

“We have to get [students to] a basic level of what I would call introductory quantum science, or introductory quantum mechanics. … The first step is to engage the broad science and engineering community, and then, once we’ve built on that foundation, to reach out to the humanities, social sciences, journalism, business, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “We’re [also] setting up another program called the Quantum Startup Foundry, which is basically an interface between companies and the university where we can both help train students in what the companies need and also [allow] companies to take a look at what we’re doing here at the university.”

In South Dakota, institutions like Dakota State University are teaming up with others across the state to advance joint quantum research and beef up programming related to the emerging technology, according to DSU President José-Marie Griffiths.

Griffiths noted that earlier this month, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem signed into law a $3 million investment to establish a new Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology, which will serve as a focal point for collaboration between Dakota State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in quantum-related research and education moving forward. She said there will be a particular focus on exploring how quantum computing can harness the potential of AI for breakthroughs in areas like cybersecurity, health care and weather forecasting.

“We’re now going to hire, probably over the next two or three years, two more faculty members and will actually encourage some of our graduate students to study with those [research] professors,” she noted. “The very fact that [state policymakers] expressed their interest and had our Legislature talking about quantum with strong support from our governor who put the Quantum Center into the budget proposal means that there’s a lot of [opportunities] in the state which we hope will lead to partnerships.”

While advancements in quantum technology appear to be in a “latency period,” according to O'Shea, that could change rapidly in the coming years, similar to how AI took off after OpenAI released ChatGPT in November 2022. Because of this, he said it is important to focus more research on the field and provide students with more rudimentary knowledge of the field today.

“Quantum algorithms are the symphonies of the future, capable of orchestrating tasks in moments that would take classical computers millennia,” he said. “Predicting the future is very difficult. We know it’s just going to impact everything. … The new [quantum] systems are going to change things in ways that are hard to imagine, so that’s why we need to enable all of our students to the best of their ability to engage with the quantum future.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story omitted the fact that a $6 million investment in a new Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology proposed by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem was reduced to $3 million before she signed it into law March 13. That version also mentioned the involvement of the University of South Dakota, which was incorrect.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.