The Phantastic Quantum Computing Field Trip!

The Phantastic Quantum Computing Field Trip!

Pedagogy is a multi-faceted thing. It has curricular and extra-curricular dimensions. And in the 21st century, we at The Study Academy have embraced the role modern technology plays in allowing students to engage with ideas. Enter teacher James Stinson who, in addition to knowing a thing or two in the social sciences, has a pretty firm grasp on advanced technology. James has already figured out ways of using that passion for the benefit of our students. His robotics club has been a big hit in past years and he’s continuing that trend this year. Add to the list the Computer Club that debuted Thursday of last week. With this in mind, it wasn’t surprising that James was a particular fan of Principal Jason Krell’s idea for a field trip to the Institute of Quantum Computing and the Physica Phantastica event at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. In fact, the field trip struck numerous faculty and staff as a very special idea for making an impact on students. We know that so many students today engage with sophisticated technology, from cell phones, to iPods, to various gaming platforms, and many more. And of course, as parents already know, we’re not shy of using modern teaching technology to illuminate our lesson plans and encourage self-knowledge for our students. Our brain wave technology has been an invaluable tool for helping students focus, and our smart boards have allowed us to incorporate various media into the classroom all in one device. But in addition to students using complex devices, we want our bright students to encounter how such devices function, and hear how they’re developed. While the Institute of Quantum Computing and Perimeter Institute in Waterloo were a bit of trek, we figured it was well worth the travel time.

Quantum Computing

On the road to the Quantum Institute.

And it was. The day began with a lecture by Outreach Scientist Dr. Kelly Foyle, whose interesting application of scientific principles made for a special treat: she demonstrated how very entwined birds are in various invisible forces. For example, birds depend on the Earth’s magnetic field and certain quantum effects to help them navigate during seasonal migrations. What an important lecture to remind us that quantum effects aren’t simply an invention of the modern age for the purpose of high-tech computers, but that they’ve been an important part of the natural world for ages. An awe-inspiring thought, one the students have proved they’re happy to engage with. And there was no shortage of people modelling deep thinking. Knowledge, as we came to see, wasn’t only being exchanged on the lecture stand — interested visitors and knowledgeable researchers were grouped around whiteboards, discussing a wide range of topics in the area of theoretical physics. What a great way for Study Academy students to witness the uncontainable nature of the scientific imagination.

After the lecture, students made their way across the snow-laden campus to see the incredible resources housed at the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridas Quantum-Nano Centre, where they encountered gorgeous open architecture. It was a beautiful backdrop against which they were about to glimpse into the heart of technologies that could “harness the quantum laws of nature,” as the Institute’s website boasts. The Institute of Quantum Computing is another fixture that puts on a number of wonderful lectures: in the past, they’ve explored topics like dark matter, the art of ‘guesstimation’, and the history of and science behind the famous Mars Rover. But in order to see why the Institute of Quantum Computing is considered one of the world’s top quantum computing research centres, we wanted physical proof.

Quantum Computing

A cryogenic chamber containing superconducting material.

That was taken care of by Senior Manager of Scientific Outreach, Martin Laforest, who offered explanations, history, and anecdotes on various machines the Institute had on display. He also fielded some really bright and creative questions from our students. While we knew the Institute contained impressive machines such as atomic clocks, we were treated to seeing two  particularly amazing machines that we weren’t expecting. We saw a quantum computer that operates through the use of a 14-watt laser, and another one that functions at temperatures barely above absolute zero (given that it was one of our colder days in November, it wasn’t hard to imagine what absolute zero would feel like). It was a privilege to get a first-hand look at these technologies. And while these machines aren’t likely to be commercially available any time in the near future, they signify massive leaps forward in the field.

With technology getting smaller and smaller, we felt it was so crucial for students to glimpse the features and components of nanotechnology which are integral to the devices they use on a daily basis. We want students to remember the human touch behind all of these technologies, to remind them that their primary purpose is to help them explore ideas and develop skills (in addition to being sources of entertainment). We think the best way to reconnect with that purpose is to see the minds that developed these fantastic technologies in the first place. We look forward to continuing this tradition of fun and educational field trips, even on the snowiest of days!

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