How are students in a classroom like a trapped-ion quantum computer? In quantum computing — which leverages features of quantum physics to create powerful new machines that may someday outperform classical computers — trapped-ion systems are one of the architectures under exploration by today’s engineers. Explaining these concepts to a general audience is very difficult, but student Emmanuel Teferi, and lecturer and designer Sheila Pontis hit upon a useful analogy: what if an excited ion in a mechanical “ion trap” is like an excited student sitting in a classroom?
Teferi expanded upon the concept as part of his final project, “Let’s Make a Quantum Computer,” for Princeton University’s Design for Understanding (EGR 381) course, which this year featured a special section on quantum computing. Amidst colorful primers on the potential, basic concepts, and components of quantum technology, a graphic compares classroom and computer, demonstrating how a teacher’s instruction is like a trapped-ion system’s laser controller, while a midterm exam assesses a student’s knowledge just as a quantum algorithm measures the state of excited ions.
Like the student/ions of this example, those enrolled in this project-based class — a mixture of humanists, psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and computer, physical, and biological science majors — may not have had any prior knowledge of quantum computing. But the course, a partnership with the Enabling Practical-Scale Quantum Computing (EPiQC) collaboration of scientists and educators at the University of Chicago, Princeton, Duke, UCSB, and MIT, embraced those fresh perspectives. Over twelve weeks, students learned about quantum computing themselves, then worked to visually explain the topic to non-expert audiences, such as high school students and museum visitors.