Professor Michelle Simmons opens labs to inspire students

22 Aug 2018
Michelle Simmons and Eddie Woo

Hundreds of school students got a look at what life as a scientist might be like during a rare and eye-opening visit to the University’s quantum computing research centre.

Professor Michelle Simmons hosted hundreds of school students at her quantum labs for Science Week.  Among those attending was a group of Victorian Year 2 students who have named their class ‘Simmons’ in her honour.  The class, from St Mary of the Cross Primary School in Point Cook, chose Michelle as an inspiring example under the theme of Science. The school’s teacher, Jennifer Ryan, who kickstarted the visit by simply emailing Professor Simmons, said interacting with Michelle and the research had created a renewed passion in her students to try new things, be problem solvers, and open up to risk-taking. 

“I hope they take out of today that they should dream big. I catch myself looking around, thinking what an incredible opportunity we’ve received – so I hope my students always think that anything's possible with hard work and putting your mind to it,” said Jennifer.   

When Scientia Professor Michelle Simmons, UNSW Science, became Australian of the Year 2018, her acceptance speech touched on themes that resonated with many school students and teachers: her encouragement of all young people to pursue what they love, to set their sights high, to tackle the hardest challenges in life and to be the creators of technology, not just the users. 

Following the ceremony – and numerous subsequent speech invites from schools across Australia – Michelle and her team decided to open the doors of the Centre for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology for one full day, to offer students the opportunity to see the team’s ground-breaking research in action – a first in the centre’s history 

Michelle said the goal was to open the students’ minds to the possibilities a career in STEM offers. 

“When I was younger, I visited a fabrication plant in the US, and observed how they make semi-conductor chips. It completely opened my mind to the world of possibility that was out there. I remember thinking that all children should see this. 

“So here we are in Australia, we've got this great facility of building chips in-house, so I'm hoping we opened the students’ eyes to what's out there, to all the kind of jobs they can have, and just get them excited by science.” 

Professor Emma Johnston, Dean of Science, supported the initiative, “It’s important that we take the time to inspire and encourage our next generation of scientists.  Michelle, as Australian of the Year, has a unique opportunity to reach the community, educate, and promote the cutting-edge research she and her team are accomplishing here at UNSW.”  

The day was jam-packed, with primary school students visiting the centre in the morning, and secondary students in the afternoon. After an official welcome and a mini-lecture by Michelle, the first school group was led through the quantum laboratories to witness the technology being used to build a quantum computer in silicon. 

Special guest, star maths teacher and member of the UNSW Gonski Institute for Education advisory board, Eddie Woo showed the students a mind-blowing card trick to illustrate fundamental principles of maths. Eddie won Australia’s Local Hero Award at the Australian of the Year Awards in January and was a top 10 finalist in the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2018.  

“By showing the kids some practical mathematics with something as simple as a deck of cards, I’m hoping to have demonstrated to them that there are patterns all around them in the universe – some of them seem invisible but once you have an eye to perceive them, the possibilities are endless,” Eddie said. 

“In fact, mathematics is the gateway that allows us to solve these really profound and world-changing problems, like trying to construct a quantum computer!” 

Earlier this year, Michelle went to see the “Simmons” class in Point Cook and invited them to visit the centre on Open Day. Many of the children had never been on a plane before.