Researchers from the University of Central Florida, the University of Texas at Dallas and Vanderbilt University have been awarded a three-year, $927,203 grant to advance future quantum education using virtual reality (VR ) and machine learning to identify and address misconceptions about quantum information science (QIS).
The U.S. National Science Foundation-funded project began in August 2023 and leverages QubitVR, a quantum education VR application previously developed at UCF in the Senior Computational Design program.
The project will evaluate QubitVR and intelligent tutoring versions of the VR application through laboratory studies and undergraduate QIS courses. The project will also result in the development of desktop and smartphone versions of QubitVR for broader impacts.
UCF will be responsible for the iterative development of QubitVR, including machine learning-based intelligent tutoring versions, conducting laboratory studies, and evaluating QubitVR in an undergraduate QIS course . UCF received $500,000 for these efforts, and Ryan McMahan, associate professor of computing, is the lead principal investigator on the project at UCF. Eduardo Mucciolo, professor of physics at UCF, is also a senior executive on the project.
Quantum computing leverages the principles of quantum mechanics in which particles can be in multiple locations and states simultaneously to achieve significantly improved processing power.
“For example, the encryption that protects your email and your password – a quantum computer could crack it in minutes,” says McMahan. “So there’s a lot of potential power there.”
McMahan says the possibilities in quantum computing are enormous, but the complexity of the field, including misconceptions about phenomena such as superposition and components such as quantum logic gates, can pose a barrier to entry.
But by using virtual reality, teachers can provide a tangible, visual understanding of quantum mechanics that allows students and professionals to harness the power of quantum computing, he says.
Train the workforce
McMahan says that currently many people working in quantum computing have very close ties to quantum physics, but there are fewer computer scientists involved who would have the skills to write new quantum algorithms .
“If we can train people who have a good conceptualization of quantum mechanics, but also strong algorithmic knowledge, we will actually see more quantum computing algorithms developed,” McMahan says. “Currently, there are only a few well-known quantum computing algorithms, because it is very difficult to understand these concepts and how to use them to take advantage of quantum computing.”
These algorithms could be used for cryptography, security, big data analysis and much more.
Several companies and institutions have developed quantum computers, although the technology is still in the early stages of development. These computers also face limitations, such as the need to operate them at extremely low temperatures to minimize environmental interference from quantum bits of information.
Keerthan Reddy Rajulapally, a UCF student pursuing a Masters in Computer, works as a graduate research assistant on the project. His role includes the development of the QubitVR software and application.
“Our goal is to create a VR application with an intelligent tutoring system implementing different machine learning models to easily teach ‘difficult to understand topics or topics’,” says Reddy. “Through QubitVR we are trying to teach quantum computing, but we can always design a different application, tailored to a specific topic.”
The graduate research assistant says he was always interested in games, and after being introduced to VR gaming and then McMahan’s VR engineering class, he was hooked and wanted to pursue research in the field.
“With this project, we hope to help both teachers and students,” he says. “We are revolutionizing teaching and redefining ‘learning’ by providing students with a fun, interactive 3D experience where they can truly understand the essence of a subject.
The project began following a conversation McMahan had with Michael Kolodrubetz, assistant professor of physics at the University of Texas at Dallas, about how virtual reality could be ideal for education on difficult concepts such as quantum mechanics.
“We started talking and collaborating on QubitVR shortly after,” says Kolodrubetz.
Kolodrubetz’s role in the project will be that of a quantum expert, both through his research on non-equilibrium quantum mechanical systems and through his teaching of quantum mechanics to non-physicists.
“My group will help adapt QubitVR to target the most salient and hard-to-understand points in quantum information science and allow students to visualize them in the context of virtual reality,” he says.
Kolodrubetz argues that quantum mechanics and information become increasingly relevant to technology as they shrink to sizes small enough that classical physics ceases to be a useful explanation.
“Despite this, most STEM students learn little or no quantum science, and those who do often struggle to understand quantum phenomena due to misconceptions about how quantum systems should behave, depending of their experience in the classical world,” explains Kolodrubetz. “By enabling interactions with technologically important quantum systems, QubitVR will lower the barriers to breaking down these misconceptions and provide the foundation for understanding that could lead to further technological advancements.”
Kelley Durkin, a research assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who studies children’s misconceptions in mathematics, will serve as a learning scientist on the team.
It will help develop a new assessment of student knowledge of quantum information science, identify misconceptions that students exhibit when learning quantum information science, and suggest ways to adapt QubitVR to directly address to student misconceptions.
“Often, people just try to clear up students’ misconceptions by telling them they are wrong and showing them the correct answer,” she says. “QubitVR provides a unique opportunity to not only identify where students’ misunderstandings lie, but also provide them with problems to challenge these misconceptions in real time.”
“Hopefully, QubitVR will reduce the barriers that prevent students from understanding quantum information science and make the field more accessible to students,” she says.
McMahan earned his doctorate in computer science and applications at Virginia Tech and joined the UCF Department of Computer Science, part of the College of Engineering and Computer Sciencein 2019.