Quantum in Classroom

Screenshot from quantum chess showing two kings in superposition.

In some games, you win or lose, but in a new game developed for students that uses the laws of quantum physics, you can win every time. So explains Spiros Michalakis, outreach manager for Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, or IQIM. For the past two years, Michalakis has been helping to develop various games, events, and activities across the globe for the first-ever World Quantum Day, April 14.

As part of these efforts, Michalakis and others are developing lessons for middle school and high school students that teach the principles of quantum science. The initiative, called QuanTime, is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and includes a host of additional partners. Five new classroom lessons will launch as part of World Quantum Day; Caltech helped develop two of them together with its partners Quantum Realm Games, Google, and Western Illinois University.

One of the lessons, titled Zeros and Ones, involves a game in which teams of students assign 1s and 0s to a grid based on a recreational math concept known as a magic square. This particular game is designed such that students have about a 90 percent chance of winning, but as they continue to play, their probability of winning every round goes down exponentially. However, the game takes a turn for the better when principles of quantum physics are invoked, such as superposition and entanglement. For example, in the quantum phase of the game, students can place a 0 or 1 into a state of superposition, which means that squares on the grid can contain both 0 and 1 at the same time. By using their “quantum powers,” the students can now win the game every time.

“We are learnifying gaming, not gamifying learning,” says Michalakis, who is the U.S. ambassador for World Quantum Day. Michalakis explains that the goal of the lessons is to give students a sense of the surprising behaviors of quantum, or subatomic, particles, which lie at the root of many future technologies, including quantum computers.

“We are trying to entice the future quantum workforce,” says Michalakis. “Quantum computers were once science fiction, but they are being developed now and involve not just quantum physics but math, computer science, engineering, chemistry, and other fields.” The field as a whole is called quantum information science and engineering, or QISE.

The other lesson, developed by Caltech and its partners Quantum Realm Games and Google, involves quantum chess. Quantum chess was conceived by Quantum Realm Games founder Chris Cantwell during weekly meetings with Michalakis at Caltech beginning in 2014. The game was featured in a video produced by IQIM in 2016 starring Stephen Hawking and Paul Rudd, and, later, in 2019, Cantwell partnered with Google to run the game on Google’s prototype quantum computer.

Quantum chess resembles classic chess, but like the Zeros and Ones lesson, it incorporates the quantum weirdness of superposition and entanglement to give players more options. For example, players can decide to split their kings into a state of superposition, such that one king piece exists on two squares at once. If one player tries to capture their opponent’s superposed king on one of the two squares, then there is only a 50 percent chance the king is actually there.

“We wanted to give people a way to interact with quantum physics outside of a lab, so the game is built on top of a true quantum simulation,” says Cantwell. “This makes it possible for players to experience things like entanglement and interference, not just probability. I always felt that meaningful educational experiences could be built on top of quantum chess. It is cool to see that happening!”

The quantum chess puzzles for kids help them “build intuition about quantum physics,” says Ricardo Olenewa, who leads quantum education for Google. “People learn best by doing things with their hands. Our puzzles give them a chance to imagine the quantum rules of nature in a physical reality.”

All five of the new QuanTime lessons, which were piloted in November 2021 with the help of 20 teachers, are available at the official QuanTime website

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