The emerging field of quantum science is adding new dimensions to the age-old question: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” In the ever-expanding field of quantum science, Virginia Tech is working to ensure learning opportunities grow just as fast.

One of only a handful of higher education institutions to offer experiential quantum training, Virginia Tech is now working with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to meet the growing demand for a quantum-trained workforce.

Last spring, the Sloan Foundation and Genentech Foundation Fund awarded a College of Engineering team a combined $825,000 to:

  • Investigate barriers to the advancement of underrepresented minority students and faculty members in STEM.
  • Propose solutions.
  • Replicate the recently established Virginia Tech quantum experiential learning lab at Virginia State University.

Spearheaded by Wayne Scales, the J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the initiative targets the education-to-workforce pipeline.

“We are training faculty members, acquiring equipment, and developing quantum curricula,” said Scales, who is also a Commonwealth Cyber Initiative researcher and member of the Virginia Tech quantum engineering community. “This project is demonstrating that we care and we are interested in developing equitable partnerships to help diversify the workforce in critical emerging technologies.”

Meeting the quantum talent shortage in Virginia

Quantum workforce development is a priority for the United States, according to the National Quantum Initiative. The initiative’s most recent workforce development report named a shortage of talent as a primary challenge, noting that quantum jobs in academia, industry, and government far outstrip available talent.

Thanks to the initial investment from the College of Engineering, Virginia Tech’s quantum experiential learning lab includes quantum communications and quantum sensing stations, where students can manipulate the laws of physics at the quantum level to secure information and make precise measurements.

“Currently there are no more than a half dozen or so U.S. universities with the experiential quantum training lab set up, which provides a platform for both education and research training,” Scales said. “We’re really excited to be getting this off the ground.”

Funds from the College of Science research instrumentation program will further increase access to this state-of-the-art equipment.

John Morris, associate dean for research in the College of Science, highlighted the strong working relationship between science and engineering: “By working together, the Virginia Tech College of Science and the College of Engineering are leveraging our respective expertise and resources to push the boundaries of quantum information science,” Morris said.

Equipping a quantum workforce of the future

Besides replicating the quantum experiential learning lab at Virginia State University, Scales also is collaborating with faculty members at Virginia Military Institute to acquire a similar set up.

“We're on the way to having three Virginia universities with this unique laboratory infrastructure,” Scales said. “We can grow and develop from there.”

Plans are underway to expand quantum training and resource access to Prairie View A&M University and other minority-serving institutions in addition to several African universities.

“This is going to prepare students for the workforce because they will have a good foundation in hands-on quantum fundamentals,” Scales said. “It’s a unique springboard because it allows them to pursue quantum specialties in almost any field.”

Quantum bootcamp for faculty members

As part of the overarching goal to diversify the STEM workforce through quantum science, Scales is also working with HBCUs to offer a second quantum faculty workshop, Aug. 7-11, at the Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington. The five-day event will build on the success of last year’s workshop, which was funded in part by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Southwest Virginia.

“We are thrilled to see these initial efforts at Virginia Tech expand to other institutions in the state and attract talent to Virginia through partnerships such as this one,” said Gretchen Mathews, who directs the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Southwest Virginia.

Workshop partners include:

  • Virginia State University
  • Prairie View A&M University
  • Texas Southern University
  • Tennessee State University
  • Montgomery College
  • Morgan State University
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