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Program brings quantum computing to Hanover High School

  • Jason Necaise, a senior at MIT, is on a team from Dartmouth leading a course to introduce students at Hanover High School to quantum computing. Necaise works with students on Friday, Jan. 31, 2019 at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover High School students Claire Adner, left, Arabella Meacham-Snyder and Paula Sedlacek listen during a course introducing students to quantum computing at the school on Friday, Jan. 31, 2019. Dartmouth students are leading the class. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth student Trevor Glasgow, left, and MIT student Jason Necaise, right, speak with Hanover High School students Clay Kynor, Jackson Tolliday and James Roth after their class in quantum computing on Friday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/10/2020 6:06:04 PM
Modified: 2/12/2020 7:01:15 PM

It wasn’t meant to be a punchline, but the solution to a puzzle posed to students in Kevin Lavigne’s Chemistry and Physics Problems for Seniors (CAPPS) class at Hanover High School on a recent afternoon elicited a round of laughter anyway.

After laboring for 25 minutes over the problem, which involved a box with a photosensitive rocket inside, the class came up with a process that would give them the right answer 25% of the time. And that was as “right” as they were ever going to get.

Such is the strange and tantalizing world of quantum computing, where matter can be in two places at once and the usual rules don’t apply.

Perplexing as it may be, it’s a frontier that holds a lot of promise for a variety of fields. That’s why a team of academics led by James Whitfield, an assistant professor of physics at Dartmouth College, is trying to introduce the principles of quantum computing to the broader community, beginning with Hanover High School students.

“Quantum technology is starting to see a widespread renaissance,” said Whitfield, who is leading a group of students from Dartmouth, California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The workforce is not wide enough for the field.”

The concept of quantum computing dates back to the 1980s, when physicists started proposing computing models that used quantum mechanics. In recent years the prospect of developing quantum computers to perform special functions that still bedevil ordinary computers has gained traction, thanks to major investments by tech giants like IBM.

Instead of storing information in “bits,” as classical computers do, quantum computers store information in qubits, which behave like subatomic particles, existing in more than one state at the same time. This ability allows them to perform calculations in far fewer steps than conventional computers. Quantum computers hold promise for such tasks as mapping out optimum bus routes, designing new drugs and creating true random numbers that would solve privacy and security problems, said Jason Necaise, a senior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-teacher of the two-week pilot program.

“In the near future, you’re going to be able to use this technology to do some really cool stuff,” he said.

Today’s high schoolers might be the very people to develop these solutions.

“To some extent, they’ll leapfrog us and we’ll be learning from them,” said Jared Heath, a Dartmouth sophomore and member of Whitfield’s team.

But first they’ll have to grow comfortable with the complexities and ambiguities of quantum mechanics. To that end, Whitfield’s team has developed a tool called qBraid, a cloud-based platform that supports quantum computing education, which they used during the class.

Partway through the second week of the program, students Claire Adner, Olivia Peterson and Paula Sedlacek, all of Hanover, said they were getting the hang of the concepts. “I feel like it’s making us learn how to learn something really complicated and not be afraid to try it,” Adner said. “It also might be really useful in the future.”

Lavigne said the lessons fit well with the spirit of CAPPS class. “(Quantum computing) is really about how to solve problems,” he said. “Watching these students work together to solve problems. … already they’re hooked.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

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