Faculty and student bringing experiential education to quantum computing

computer server

By Alexander Huls, deputy editor, YFile

York University Professor Randy Lewis and fourth-year student Sarah Powell – both from the Department of Physics and Astronomy – were invited to the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in the U.S. to teach at a summer boot camp capitalizing on the growing interest in quantum computing.

Lewis and Powell were invited to the facility – dedicated to the research of nuclear physics, as well as materials and accelerator science – by Natalie Klco, a professor at Duke University overseeing part of the boot camp meant to make quantum computing accessible. “Quantum computing is this new, exciting endeavour, but people aren’t sure how to use it,” says Lewis.

Familiar with their work, notably a paper about error mitigation techniques for quantum computer calculations, Klco asked Lewis and Powell to help create exercises suited for those looking to become more familiar with the growing field.

Lewis and Powell designed experiences aimed to teach participants how to tackle writing circuits (a model for quantum computation) in new ways, then explore any errors that arose and learn how to mitigate them. It was important to both, however, that the exercises not be lectures, but hands-on, experiential opportunities that would make the boot camp feel lively and engaging for participants.

“They weren’t just fed information. They were able to really sit down and work through problems, talk to each other, learn from each other, learn from us and come away with a set of solutions that they could look back on later,” says Powell, who recently started graduate school at the InQubator for Quantum Simulation at the University of Washington.

Lewis and Powell weren’t sure, at first, what reaction their intended experiential and collaborative approach would get, especially compared to other sessions at the boot camp. “I was there for a couple of days prior, sitting in on the other lectures, and I was a bit nervous before ours,” recalls Powell. “I was seeing how the students were acting in the previous lectures and there was no interaction between them. The instruction was a more traditional approach than what we had prepared.”

When the time came for Klco, Lewis and Powell’s session, they introduced themselves to participants, asked them to jump in, and very quickly realized they didn’t need to worry. “There was quiet in the room, but we just started walking around and we initiated conversations with students, and just like that, the whole place was a beehive of activity,” says Lewis. “It took maybe three minutes.”

The enthusiasm extended throughout the entire experience. “The students were coming in early, staying late at lunch time and in the evening,” says Lewis. Participants were especially thrilled during the last section of the course, as they were provided access to an actual quantum computer prepped by Powell to run the circuits they had been working on, and see results in real time. “By the time they had their hands on the quantum computer at the end, people were saying, ‘How can we stay in touch on this?’ ” says Lewis. When Powell returned home, she even found somebody had continued to run hundreds of calculations on the accessible quantum computer.

For Lewis and Powell, the experience was an expectation-exceeding success. It’s something Lewis now thinks about with potential for teaching and learning at York. “If we could recreate this at York, if there’s a course that really captures people’s imagination, then this sort of experiential approach could be the perfect vehicle for students,” he says.