By Published: April 5, 2023

Physics and engineering launch the Quantum Scholars program to develop the next generation quantum workforce

This spring, the Department of Physics and the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS) at CU Boulder launched the Quantum Scholars program, which serves 53 undergrads who meet monthly to learn about quantum sciences and engineering. 

“Recognizing CU’s leadership in Quantum Information Science and Engineering (QISE), we are seeking to build on our world-class educational programs to establish a community of scholars to advance talent and future leaders in the quantum fields,” says Noah Finkelstein, faculty director of the program and a professor of physics. 

“We were slated to only host 20 students with scholarships. But our program now boasts 53 students, 21 with scholarships.” 

Image of Noah Finkelstein

Noah Finkelstein serves as a PI of the Physics Education Research (PER) group at Colorado and is also a co-Director Center for STEM Learning on campus, which has become one of eight national demonstration sites for the Association of American Universities’ (AAU) STEM Education Initiative. He also serves as Co-Director of the national Network of STEM Education Centers.

The program, which is supported by the Department of Physics, CEAS and some private donor funds, was started by Mike Ritzwoller, chair of physics, and Keith Molenaar, dean of engineering.

Finkelstein says the program is largely modeled on the successful Kiewit Design-Build Scholars Program of engineering, a year-long program that engages engineering students in meaningful conversations about future careers.

“CU is already recognized as a national leader in quantum physics and engineering, including its application and the education of the next generation quantum workforce,” Finkelstein says. “This new scholarship program will help grow, broaden, highlight, diversify and advance efforts in quantum education and workforce development.” 

So far this spring, the program has hosted three leaders in quantum sciences and engineering who have showcased some of their work. Jun Ye, a CU Boulder professor of physics, spoke to students on the foundation of quantum physics and how it underpins the development of new technologies in quantum computing, quantum sensing and quantum networking. 

Scott Davis, CEO and cofounder of Vescent Photonics, a leading quantum optics and controls manufacturer, talked to students about how to take foundational advancements in science and engineering and turn them into practices and build new capacities for industries.  

And David Hume, staff physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, spoke about his projects aimed at developing and improving optical clocks using quantum metrology techniques. 

Students are slated to tour governmental facilities and local industries, and begin internships with local companies and national labs. 

Finkelstein says the field of quantum sciences is projected to be “an area of tremendous” growth.

“Dr. Davis noted he has nearly a dozen positions open at Vescent, scaling from technicians coming straight from high school or community colleges through to PhD scientists’ positions,” Finkelstein says. “Other companies cite similar numbers.”

In Colorado, quantum industries wield a $400 million-plus economic impact, with more than 1,000 employees and a 46 percent yearly job growth rate. 

“Investment in quantum computing, sensing and communication doubled year-to-year in the last several years, and we saw a multi-billion-dollar investment in 2021,” Finkelstein says.

Denali Jah, a second-year student majoring in engineering physics, is part of the Quantum Scholars group. He says the program has given him “a tremendous opportunity to connect with like-minded peers” and gain extracurricular education in the quantum sciences. 

“The program helps me learn about how quantum physics is practiced professionally and inspires me to discover the unexplored depths of knowledge,” says Jah, who received a $2,500 scholarship through the program. “The scholarship has allowed me to reduce the number of hours that I have had to work this semester, and that has freed up time for additional scientific exploration and personal development.” 

Jah, who plans to become a professor, is focusing on quantum field theory (QFT), a topic that he says is intrinsically linked to the broader topic of quantum physics. “QFT intrigues me because it seeks to answer the fundamental question of what reality is. I believe that this field holds immense potential.” 

Finkelstein describes the Quantum Scholars program as “extremely successful.”

Attendance at our programs, engagement in our online community and enthusiasm by students is very clearly an indication of success. Our students have voted—96 percent in favor—of moving from a one-semester to a full-year program in the future."

“Attendance at our programs, engagement in our online community and enthusiasm by students is very clearly an indication of success,” he says. “Our students have voted—96 percent in favor—of moving from a one-semester to a full-year program in the future.”

He adds that the program is also seeking to diversify. He says currently the program is 33 percent female or gender-fluid and 38 percent people of color. 

“We’re thrilled that this program will continue for academic year of ’23 and ’24 due to the commitment from the Department of Physics and CEAS,” he says. “We very much hope to grow and we’re seeking support from our alumni, donors, community and industrial partners.”