How do you make a 4,000 square foot museum exhibition about an invisible science?

Following a PhD in experimental quantum information and a two-year stint as a postdoctoral researcher, I have been fortunate enough to land my dream job. For the last six years, I have been a full-time outreach scientist. My job is to communicate and teach the wonders of quantum information science and technology to a variety of audiences: from high school students and teachers, to undergraduate students, the general public, government officials and members of the high tech industry. Explaining the complex concepts of quantum mechanics to non-experts is certainly challenging, but I find it to be a wonderful way to deepen my own understanding of quantum information. As a famous scientist once said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

With the support of the Communication and Strategic Initiatives team at the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC), I’ve developed countless programs on quantum information, including the Quantum Cryptography School for Young Students, the Undergraduate School on Experimental Quantum Information Processing and a newly minted workshop for high school teachers giving them knowledge and resources to bring back to their classroom.

But programs are different – you have a group of engaged students, usually with some scientific knowledge base. You have them for at least a few hours at a time. You can read the room, adapt to your audience, answer questions, scribble on a white board, lead demonstrations and make them perform hands-on experiments. Write and deliver an eight-day-long program on quantum cryptography for high school students? Sure! Condense all the lessons learned in this program into 200 printed words, one graphic panel and one interactive? Not so easy!

 The ExhibitionThis has essentially been my challenge over the past year – taking the most complex concepts of quantum mechanics and distilling them down into bite-sized pieces a sixth-grader can understand. And most importantly, making sure that the science is accurate and we don’t fall into the trap of oversimplifying things. “Make things simple, not simpler” is our motto.

The exhibit – officially called QUANTUM: The Exhibition – is essentially a look at how quantum mechanics and information technology are converging to create the technologies of the future. The purpose behind the project is to break down the barriers around what we do here at IQC and around the world and invite the public to explore the field. We want people to leave the exhibit as excited about quantum technologies as we are – and do to that we’ve needed to put ourselves in the shoes of people with little to no science training.

If you ask any science communicator how they convey complex concepts, 95 percent of the time they’ll tell you to use analogies the audience can relate to. Well now you see the problem: quantum mechanics lives outside our perception of reality. There is nothing in the classical world that prepares us to fully appreciate the remarkable phenomena the quantum world has to offer. If you can explain it with everyday analogies, you are not explaining quantum mechanics: you are explaining classical physics!

Group of IQC staff and students brainstormingAs a scientist and content lead for the exhibit, it’s been extremely challenging but thankfully, I was very well surrounded. Dozens of IQC members generously donated their time to participate in brainstorming sessions. These led to some great seed ideas for the interactive and multimedia components of the exhibit. We also had great collaborators at professional exhibit design firms who have expertise in developing content that is accessible, fun and experiential. They have consistently challenged my perception on general knowledge and it’s been such a valuable learning experience for me as an outreach professional. Finally, this exhibit would not have been possible without the exceptional project management skills of Angela Olano, IQC’s manager, special projects. She’s the one who kept the whole thing moving forward and made sure that all the pieces came together

So, how did we figure out how to explain quantum superposition, interference, tunnelling, entanglement and their applications to quantum computing, cryptography, sensing and materials? Stay tuned for a follow-up post where I’ll go into more detail about some of interactive activities we came up with.

QUANTUM: The Exhibition will open at THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener October 13, 2016, and next year it will travel to science centres across the country.

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Educational programs

QKD - Quantum Key Distribution Summer School

USEQIP - Undergraduate School on Experimental Quantum Information Processing

QCSYS - Quantum Cryptography School for Young Students

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