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Posted under: Opinion

Black Students And HBCUs Are Essential To Building A Quantum Future

Without diverse scientists, we will miss massive opportunities to advance science.

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Quantum computing, an emerging technology that leverages quantum physics to solve computational problems 100 million times faster than traditional computers, will fundamentally change the way society tackles challenges — from material science to health care, cybersecurity, finance and more.

While the innovation holds an enormous amount of potential, the world won’t be able to take advantage of it without a community of researchers, developers and businesses that represent the diversity of our world.

Without diverse scientists, we will miss massive opportunities to advance science. Take, for example, a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences that found that “underrepresented students innovate at higher rates than majority students, but their novel contributions are discounted.” The study noted that diverse groups have “origins, concerns and experiences” that, because they are different, bring new viewpoints and connections that could otherwise be missed in a homogenous group.

We must change the fact that Black professionals currently account for just 7% of the STEM workforce and Black and Latinx students leave STEM degrees at nearly twice the rate of white students. In addition to underrepresentation in STEM, students of color are also disproportionately impacted by the digital divide — the gap between people who have knowledge of and access to modern technology and those who do not.

Experts speculate that discrimination, bias and an absence of community and belonging are pushing students of color away from the field. A recent study from the University of Illinois found that racial microaggressions contribute to disparities in STEM education.

That’s why we are actively working to address these issues through a unique partnership between Howard University and IBM that will spearhead the creation of a new institution — the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center — to drive a diverse and inclusive quantum workforce.

The IBM-HBCU Quantum Center will focus on developing students through a myriad of avenues, including support and funding for research opportunities, curriculum development, working advocacy and special projects. It will accelerate and drive the participation of underrepresented communities in the quantum workforce and provide equitable education and research opportunities for the members of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) community.

The Center has established measurable goals on how to accelerate participation of underrepresented communities in quantum, which includes, but isn’t limited to: increasing the number of faculty and student research projects and undergraduate research scholars, and improving the faculty-engagement rate.

Since the first one was founded nearly 200 years ago, HBCUs have been leaders in awarding baccalaureate degrees to Black students in science, technology, engineering and math. Today, the work of HBCUs is more important than ever, as they educate more than a quarter of Black students graduating with STEM degrees. A recent report from the American Institute of Physics found that thriving HBCUs are essential if we hope to increase the percentage of Black physics graduates. The National Science Foundation reports that HBCUs make up just 3% of colleges and universities but produce 27% of Black students with bachelor degrees in STEM fields.

We are urging HBCUs to join our effort by instituting quantum programs that strive for inclusivity and foster a sense of belonging. Already, 23 HBCUs have committed to the mission to educate, collaborate on joint research and create a more diverse quantum-ready workforce.

When all of our young students feel welcome, supported and empowered to impact our quantum future, we can make the most of the moment, confront our challenges with the greatest strength and leave no stone of discovery unturned.

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Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick is the President of Howard University.

Dr. Dario Gil is the SVP and Director of Research at IBM.

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