New undergraduate courses prepare students for the Second Quantum Revolution

Quantum information science and engineering is one of the hottest fields in engineering - and ECE wants to make it accessible to everyone.
Interior of an IBM quantum computing system. (Credit: IBM)

New undergraduate courses in Quantum Information Science and Engineering (QISE) at the University of Michigan are making the quantum world accessible to everyone. Starting with a sophomore-level course that has no college-level math requirements, these courses are designed to: introduce a wide and diverse range of students to the field of quantum information; prepare some students for advanced research in the field by providing foundational knowledge; and equip all who take the courses with the ability to confidently handle new quantum-infused concepts and technology in their future careers.

“Quantum information science has the potential to transform society in a way that is as transformative as the advent of the computer and internet,” said P.C. Ku, who has been overseeing development of the new undergraduate curriculum in QISE.

In the first quantum revolution, individual particles were shown to behave in ways that diverged from classical physics. Understanding these quantum effects has led to the technological revolution we see today including transistors, semiconductor microelectronics, lasers, photonics, GPS, and MRI technology.

In the second quantum revolution, quantum effects are seen at a much larger scale, and have been successfully manipulated to create new technologies that are able to surpass the fundamental limits of current technology. The second quantum revolution was sparked by the marriage between quantum mechanics and information theory – resulting in the field of quantum information science. Core applications include quantum computing; secure communications; next-generation sensors; future positioning, navigation, and timing systems; and efficient development of new materials including drug designs. It’s a wide open field at this point.

Our undergraduate classes build a broad vision for quantum technology and prepare students to take our graduate classes that focus on educating leaders in quantum research. In other words, our graduates will learn to revolutionize quantum technology by developing million times faster computers, single-molecule sensors, quantum internet, and much more.

Mack Kira

In terms of marketplace need, a Dec. 2022 report by McKinsey revealed that “there is only one qualified quantum candidate available for every three quantum job openings. By 2025, we predict that less than 50 percent of quantum computing jobs will be filled unless significant interventions occur.” 

This brings a variety of challenges and opportunities, including the need to attract individuals from not only a broad spectrum of disciplines, but also individuals who have been left out, i.e. traditionally underrepresented, from opportunities in engineering and computer science. 

It is a nationwide problem that led to the National Quantum Initiative.

QISE: A National Imperative

The National Quantum Initiative became law in 2018, and has already resulted in $2.6B in U.S. government investment. The NQI was amended twice, most recently by the Chips and Science Act of 2022. One amendment added quantum cryptography, networking, communications and sensing technologies to be added to the activities overseen by the National Institute of Standards and Technology Activities and Quantum Consortium.

Another important amendment called for the incorporation of QISE into the STEM curriculum. Facilitating this goal is the 2-year $5M NSF initiative called QuSTEAM: Convergence Undergraduate Education in Quantum Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. P.C. Ku, ECE’s Associate Chair for Undergraduate Affairs, is coordinating Michigan’s involvement in QuSTEAM, which is led by Ohio State University. QuSTEAM is tasked with revolutionizing quantum science education at the undergraduate level to develop a diverse quantum-ready workforce. 

Michigan’s involvement in QuSTEAM acted as an accelerant to these new courses in quantum information science and engineering, according to Ku. The program has already facilitated collaborations with colleagues outside of Michigan, including community colleges and HBCU institutions as well as industry.

“We’re trying to develop this specialty in a way that’s inclusive from the beginning,” said Ku.

With no specific math prerequisites beyond the high school level, the first course offered in the QISE sequence ensures access to most anyone with an interest in this highly complex field.

EECS 298: Quantum Information Science and Engineering

The gateway to quantum for everyone

The sophomore level course, Introduction to Quantum Information Science and Engineering, was offered for the first time in the Fall of 2022. The course introduces students to the important concepts, foundation, applications, and impact of QISE through in-class demonstrations. Quantum systems are introduced from both the physics point of view, and from the perspective of information and computing.

Teaching QISE and the associated concepts of quantum states, superposition, entanglement, teleportation, secure key distribution and more at the sophomore level is already a bit mind blowing. One might guess that it’s ok for students who entered Michigan with lots of AP credits, and continued taking even more advanced math courses. But such a course would be inconsistent with the primary goal of attracting students from a diverse range of backgrounds.

We’re trying to develop this specialty in a way that’s inclusive from the beginning.

P.C. Ku

“Many students who don’t have AP credits in high school went to schools where they weren’t even offered. That just means we need to adjust our approach,” said Ku. And rather than imagine what such students might need, he worked with Russell Ceballos, who until recently was a professor at Chicago State University, an HBCU institution.

“Russell already had great experiences teaching quantum to his students. I was inspired by a lot of things that he was able to learn from teaching those students, who didn’t have much of a physics background,” said Ku.

Intro to QISE was taught by Jay Guo and Sandeep Pradhan, both faculty members in ECE. For this course, students don’t have to have taken advanced calculus; in fact, they don’t even need to have taken linear algebra. They just need high-school level math (pre-calculus), physics, and chemistry – courses taken by many future English or arts majors.

“During COVID,” said Guo, “I listened to an online intro quantum course offered by Peking University designed for freshmen/sophomores. Quantum states can be represented with a simple matrix, rather than complex differential equations.” 

In EECS 298, Guo taught the basics of quantum mechanics in class – just enough for the students to understand the concepts being presented. He also performed a few in-class optical experiments for the students by using tiny laser sources and simple  optical components to illustrate the quantum nature of photons.

To introduce the students to the framework of quantum mechanics from the perspective of computing and  information systems, Pradhan used simple concepts such as vectors and matrices rather than complex differential equations. The professors also outlined quantum computing algorithms, such as Grover’s algorithms and quantum communication protocols such as quantum key distribution and teleportation.

“We also did some programming in class along with the algorithms and information aspects of quantum computing,” said Pradhan, who also teaches a graduate level course in Quantum Computing, Information and Probability.

Students learned how to use quantum computers through Qiskit, an open-source software development kit for working with quantum computers at a very basic level (circuits, pulses, and algorithms). “You’re actually simulating a simple quantum computer, up to about 20 qubits, on your local computer,” explained Pradhan. 

Both Pradhan and Guo were delighted with how interested the students were in the subject matter. 

“We had a lot of interactions,” said Pradhan. “The students said we should have advertised it more, and that it was enlightening.”

“This was the most interactive course I’ve ever taught,” said Guo gleefully. “The students asked questions all the time.” 

EECS 398: Introduction to Quantum Information Technologies

Teaching A New Mindset

The new junior level course, “Introduction to Quantum Information Technologies,” takes a deeper dive into the founding principles of quantum science and quantum information, followed by an overview of quantum technologies that have the potential to create far-reaching societal impacts. Even if students don’t pursue additional coursework, their introduction to this emerging and rapidly growing field will expand their understanding of what’s possible as they join the workforce.

Zheshen Zhang holds the cube used to split the optical power in research to create quantum entanglement for optomechanical sensors to improve performance over conventional sensors. Photo by Brenda Ahearn.

“Our job is to help them get used to quantum mechanical philosophy,” said Zheshen Zhang, associate professor of ECE who co-developed the course with Guo. “A lot of quantum effects are counterintuitive, like entanglement or quantum superposition. Nobody really has a full understanding of the foundations of quantum mechanics, but we can teach quantum effects and its profound impact on new ways of information processing and communications.”

To help students understand such spooky concepts as entanglement, they use a deck of cards to mimic the classic white ball/black ball experiment. The faculty also demonstrated how to encode quantum bits to introduce polarization – which is already widely used in commercial displays.

A knowledge of optics and photonics was originally recommended for those taking the course, but this seemed to dissuade some of the students. It turned out that Guo and Zhang believed that students without this background could easily have managed the course, so that requirement was dropped. As it stands now, no prior knowledge of quantum mechanics, classical optics, computing or information is assumed.

“We made the course more accessible by describing the concepts and novelties without invoking a lot of the equations,” said Zhang.

Physics and computer science major Joel Huang said the best part of the course was the overview of quantum computing (including communication, algorithms, memory, security) that it provided. “I feel a lot more equipped to learn more on my own and delve deeper into the field,” said Huang.

I feel a lot more equipped to learn more on my own and delve deeper into the field.

Joel Huang, UG student

Some students are already making deep connections with the course material, and the connection is the math. 

Guo invited one student, Peter Redman, to explain something he wrote in his first exam. “Peter said he was making connections with another course he took, control theory, that uses the same kind of math – linear algebra, as in this class. He said they are talking about the same types of things. I talked to him for over an hour about this.”

Another student asked, ‘Nature really behaves like that?’ “Yes,” replied Guo. “There’s a fundamental truth about this – and maybe it’s the math that is the foundation.”

EECS 428: Introduction to Quantum Nanotechnology

The senior level course, Introduction to Quantum Nanotechnology (EECS 428), was introduced in 2016. It introduces students to the foundations of quantum theory, quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanical systems; how they are used in devices; and what types of devices can be created using those technologies. Students also gain an understanding of how the new physical properties found in quantum systems are revolutionizing how we approach the storage, transmission and processing of information.

Some of the specific topics taught are quantum circuits, quantum tunneling, the role of loss, the impact of the quantum vacuum on nano-switches, coherent superposition, quantum entanglement, and single photons.

We have to train the new generation of engineers to speak the language of quantum technologies, and then how to utilize that technology in systems that they’re trying to build themselves.

Alex Burgers

The course was originally developed by Duncan Steel, the Robert J. Hiller Professor of EECS, and is now taught by his former doctoral student, Alex Burgers, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

Steel wanted to open up the world of quantum to undergraduate students by minimizing the need to solve complex differential equations, especially since programs like Matlab and Mathematics will now do those equations for you.

“This course is different from the kind of quantum mechanics that you would take in the physics department,” said Burgers, who has a PhD in physics. “It discusses quantum phenomena through the lens of existing technologies, and provides an understanding of these devices in terms of quantum theory.”

Even at this level, taking the course does not presume prior knowledge of quantum mechanics. It does, however, require sophomore level physics, multivariable calculus, and differential equations (all typically accomplished by the end of an engineering students’ sophomore year). This senior-level class typically has about as many graduate students as undergraduate students.

“The subject matter is somewhat uneasy by its very nature,” said Burgers. “Part of the goal of the course is to guide students to lean into that uneasiness.”

And once they do, by taking the course, they are prepared to discuss the topic in their future jobs.

“We have to train the new generation of engineers to speak the language of quantum technologies,” said Burgers, “and then how to utilize that technology in systems that they’re trying to build themselves.”

EECS 498: Quantum Electromagnetics

A more recent addition to ECE’s undergraduate courses in quantum information science and engineering is the senior level course, EECS 498: Quantum electromagnetics. This course, developed and taught for the first time in 2022 by Steel, introduces students to the quantum theory of electromagnetic radiation, matter and their interactions – which underpins all new quantum technologies. 

The subject matter of this course is normally taught in the 2nd year of graduate studies at Michigan, but Steel recalled thinking, “There’s got to be a way to teach this to undergrads.” And he succeeded. “The students loved it,” he said.

According to Burgers, who taught this course in 2023, “EECS 428 introduces the quantum system, and then 498 explores how the quantum systems can be manipulated by external radiation, which we must also describe using quantum mechanics.”  

In EECS 428, the atom, circuits, or quantum dot is treated as the quantum mechanical system. In EECS 498, both the system itself and the radiation that’s interacting with it are understood in terms of  quantum mechanics.

A superconducting circuit is provided as an example because of its intriguing potential in computing. Having no electrical resistance at extremely low temperatures, a superconducting circuit is highly efficient and provides remarkable processing power. It is central to today’s quantum computers, and is also used for highly sensitive sensing applications.

Students in EECS 498 get a chance to discuss the material with each other and with Prof. Burgers (not pictured) at the beginning of each class

For the final project, teams of students take an application of quantum electromagnetism found in a current technology and describe its foundations, pitfalls, where the technology is going, and what it needs to get there.

Students won’t be experts after taking either or even both 428 and 498, but they will be much better prepared to deal with quantum technologies that they will most likely encounter in their future jobs. 

“Having a workforce that is fluent in the quantum language is really critical,” stressed Burgers. “Our students need to understand the technology that is being deployed, and the limitations of that technology.”

For example, he explained, an employer might push an employee to come up with an idea for how to use a quantum system to solve a problem. The employee needs to be able to think critically about whether or not a quantum solution will be an enhancement – or whether it could even work. In some cases, it is neither.

These courses are also relevant to a wide range of non-quantum technology. 

“We use semiconductor devices and lasers constantly,” said Burgers. “And while the end result is not something that’s inherently entangled or quantum mechanical, you need to understand quantum mechanics in order to understand why the laser works, or why these quantum dots emit radiation at this specific frequency. Quantum training allows you to think creatively about how you could use them in a different way.”

In future semesters, Burgers plans to introduce a variety of demonstrations prepared in his own lab. But he’s also looking forward to the next planned course being implemented – because it’s going to be a lab course.

Senior-level Quantum Lab Course

The four courses outlined above do not include specific lab components, and all the faculty involved in QISE are excited about a fifth course that is currently being developed. It is a senior-level quantum lab course that could also potentially serve as a major design experience course for ECE students.

“Seeing is believing,” said ECE associate professor Parag Deotare, who is currently developing a series of six labs that would serve as the foundation of the course.

Once the new quantum lab course is up and running, students will be able to do some highly complex experiments such as entanglement, photon generation, and superposition.

And students in the earlier courses will be able to take mini field trips to the lab to watch how actual quantum experiments are done.

L-R: Saiwei Nie, Bohan Zhou and Colin Quinn experimenting in the teaching lab with spontaneous parametric down conversion to generate entangled photon pairs.

In a related effort that is part of the QuSTEAM program, Deotare is working with faculty at Ohio State University, University of Chicago, and Michigan State University to develop lab experiments that could be used by students across the country. 

For example, students at Chicago could use computers to remotely move the mirrors and lasers that actually reside at Michigan in order to mimic live experiments. Deotare is collaborating with Prof. Robert Hovden in the Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering in this effort.

But why not just duplicate the experimental setup at the individual schools?

“These experiments are very complicated and the equipment is incredibly expensive,” said Deotare. Fortunately, modern technology now allows for the sharing of this equipment with collaborators around the world.

Gateway to the future

The goal for these courses is an eventual minor in Quantum Information Science and Engineering. On the way to becoming a minor open to anyone in the University, QISE is expected to first be proposed as a supplemental studies program within the College of Engineering, and upon approval would join existing programs in Sustainability, Global Health Design, and Socially Engaged Design. Programs need only 9 credits (typically 3 courses), which is one fewer than an official minor. The QISE program could be approved as early as 2024, and implemented the following year.

Even taking just one of these courses offer undergraduate students from a wide range of disciplines the opportunity to understand why there’s all this hype about quantum information science and engineering.

“Our undergraduate classes build a broad vision for quantum technology and prepare students to take our graduate classes that focus on educating leaders in quantum research. In other words, our graduates will learn to revolutionize quantum technology by developing million times faster computers, single-molecule sensors, quantum internet, and much more,” said Prof. Mack Kira, director of the Midwest Quantum Collaboratory and co-director of the soon-to-be-announced Quantum Institute at Michigan.

New courses will continue to be added to the curriculum as Michigan ECE works to prepare as many students as possible to contribute meaningfully to our quantum future.