Odyssey course on Quantum Computing

High school students in Technion’s prestigious Odyssey program recently completed the innovative course “Quantum Computing – Theory and Practice,” which was offered for the first time this semester. The Odyssey program is open to highly motivated and talented Israeli teens interested in science and technology, providing them an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of various multidisciplinary scientific fields while they are still in high school. Every year, only thirty 8th graders from all over northern Israel are accepted to the challenging program out of approximately 900 applicants.

The semester-long course provided twenty-five 11th and 12th graders with a window into the world of quantum computing – a field which is still in its infancy but is poised to become an increasingly prominent, and possibly mainstream, tool in the not-too-distant future. The course was unique in that it did not require any previous knowledge of related fields, such as programming or physics. The initiative was made possible thanks to the generous support of Australian philanthropists Robert and Ruth Magid.

“It was a pedagogic challenge. We were interested in making complex material accessible to everyone,” says Dr. Ohad Zohar, who spearheaded the course’s development and was tasked with designing its curriculum. The lectures presented the mathematical model underlying quantum computing in a clear and simple way, enabling participants to understand key concepts and results.

The course consisted of 12 two-hour lectures, six homework exercises, a mid-term exam and a final exam. In addition to theoretical lectures, the young students also had the opportunity to program an actual IBM quantum computer. “This is the first time in the world that a quantum computing course without prerequisites includes not only principles but also hands-on experience,” Dr. Zohar points out, adding that the IBM computer can be programmed through the Internet and the programmers receive the results a few hours later.

When the course was first proposed in the Spring of 2020 by Prof. Yosi Avron, Director of Technion’s Helen Diller Quantum Center, the Covid-19 pandemic was already here. Nevertheless, plans went ahead for the course to open in October despite the uncertainty about whether the sessions would be held in person or not. As a result, the course was designed for remote learning: there are slides covering the entire course material, and the lectures are all recorded for learning on-demand.

At the last minute, Ministry of Health guidelines obliged all classes to be held via the Zoom platform. A planned tour of two Technion labs – Prof. Shay Hacohen-Gourgy’s Superconducting Quantum Circuits Lab and Prof. David Gershoni’s Physics lab – was conducted virtually. “It would have been a bit different if we could have met in person. Interaction with the students would have been easier,” Dr. Zohar notes. The participants will receive credit points towards an undergraduate degree at Technion.

In a survey conducted after the course ended, 100% of the students in the first cohort reported that they found the class either “very interesting” or “extremely interesting.” One student wrote: “I enjoyed the course very much. Quantum algorithms fascinate me, and I will probably continue to study the field in my spare time. I’m glad that the course exposed me to this subject.” Indeed, several of the high schoolers expressed a desire to continue studying quantum computing in the future. “This course was very interesting and challenging and I enjoyed it very much. It gave me a good introduction to fields that I would like to explore in the future,” wrote another student. Technion is considering offering the course to Technion students as well – again with no necessary prerequisites. (Rebecca Kopans)