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Hoping to spur interest in quantum computing among Black students, IBM has launched the IBM Quantum education and research initiative, which includes working in partnership with 13 historically Black colleges and universities.
As part of the initiative, the newly formed partnership will establish the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center, which will provide access to IBM's quantum computers as well as a place to collaborate on academic and community outreach programs. IBM is making a multiyear, $100 million investment in technology assets and skills development through the partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as through the IBM Skills Academy Academic Initiative.
"The [IBM-HBCU Quantum Center] brings together both faculty and students from across all the institutions, where they can collaborate and research education programs together," said Kayla Lee, Growth Product Manager, Community Partnerships at IBM Quantum. "It's really an experiment to see what schools who have something in common can create technology programs."
Disparities in number of science degrees
According to data collected on the ethnicity of all bachelor's degree students from the National Center for Education Statistics, Black students are underrepresented in STEM disciplines, something that is magnified when it comes to emerging technology fields like quantum computing.
In 2015, 182,178 Black students earned bachelor's degrees in the U.S., a 43% increase compared with the 127,978 bachelor's degrees conferred upon Black students in 2005. That's compared with 1,916,129 bachelor's degrees that students earned in 2015 in total, a 32% increase from the 1,456,401 bachelor's degrees received in 2005. But while the total number of bachelor's degrees earned by Black students grew faster than the total number of bachelor's degrees earned by all U.S. recipients, that rate of growth is not reflected in physical sciences and engineering overall.
Thomas SearlesAssociate professor of physics, Howard University
"You might point to the Black physicists studying quantum computing in grad school that already know about IBM's [quantum] and the technology," Lee said. "But what about the young computer science freshmen who don't, or the people who want to learn but maybe are nervous because of the barrier to entry? We need more people getting Ph.D.s in this space that are then going into the workforce."
Thomas Searles is a Martin Luther King visiting professor at MIT and associate professor of physics at Howard University, where he co-teaches a course in modern physics. Howard University is serving as an education and training hub helping coordinate the various activities among IBM quantum computing specialists, students and faculty across the other 12 universities until the physical IBM-HBCU Quantum Center is ready.
Searles said students spend roughly a third of the course learning quantum computation with IBM's Qiskit application development software. When COVID-19 caused the research being conducted in his lab group to be placed on hold, IBM stepped in and made its quantum systems available so students could carry on their projects over the cloud.
"We are looking at how can we transform traditional programs like a Ph.D. in physics or a master's in chemical engineering or bachelor's in computer engineering, and how can we prepare those students to be in a position to gain employment and succeed in the quantum industry," Searles said.
Building skill sets for the future
Searles said he's focused on not only working across the HBCU network to help students build the skill sets necessary for graduate school, but also in building a sense of community to stimulate interest in would-be quantum computing students for decades to come.
"What we're doing right now is looking at programs for students 8, 9, 10 years old to build the skills they will need in the future," Searles said. "So, when they are 35 and ready to be entrepreneurs, they'll have the tools to pursue opportunities across many different fields."
While students focus on developing algorithms designed to solve a range of complex problems, they also create culturally relevant quantum-based games that will go up on GitHub. One of the games is a version of tic-tac-toe that allows quantum systems to play against each other. Given the universal appeal of tic-tac-toe, the quantum version is a good way to encourage the participation and education of a diverse population on a quantum platform.
"It is critical now to engage other communities, and one of the things we are developing right now that is culturally relevant is a set of quantum games that will go up on GitHub," Searles said. "The quantum version introduces ideas of superposition and entanglement."
Searles said he and faculty members from the other 12 HBCUs have ongoing conversations with IBM on how to evolve their relationship beyond just a basic partnership and work in concert to "make substantial changes in the diversity and outlook of the quantum workforce."
The 13 members of the HBCU include Albany State University, Clark Atlanta University, Coppin State University, Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Southern University, Texas Southern University, University of the Virgin Islands, Virginia Union University and Xavier University of Louisiana.