Remarks at Harlem Academy Collaboration for Innovation

Category: University Events
June, 2017
Russell Sage Dining Hall

Harlem Academy Collaboration for Innovation

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

I am so delighted to have this opportunity to converse with the remarkable students of Harlem Academy.

Welcome to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute! Have you all enjoyed experiencing college life?

I would like to pose this question particularly to the fifth graders for whom this is a first visit. Have you had fun?

  • What you have done here is meant to build on the rich Harlem Academy experience, and the rich inquiry-based learning that the students are exposed to in that environment.
  • Learning goes beyond the classroom though—self motivation is important—positive experiences can occur in the summer, on weekends, and on holidays, through reading and conducting research.
  • Middle school is a jumping off point—you will go to many different schools after 8th grade—you control your destinies. Science, mathematics, and reasoning are key. Students should set goals, and do what is necessary to achieve those goals. Going to a good school will help you only so far—you have to be willing to not only do the work expected, you may have to seek resources, mentors, tutors, and programs outside the traditional school setting to achieve your goals.
  • At Harlem Academy, you have the opportunity to develop the necessary foundation to position you to be a leader in STEM in the future—build upon that foundation starting now, as 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. Doing so will position you to go to the college that helps you achieve your academic and career goals. Set goals, develop a plan to achieve those goals, work hard, and be flexible and prepared to adjust along the way so that your goals are always achievable. If you do this, there is nothing that you will not achieve.

We are honored to partner with Harlem Academy in the Collaboration for Innovation Program held here each June. At Rensselaer, we are well aware that Harlem Academy accepts only high-potential students, those who thrive at the highest academic levels and are poised for great success at top secondary schools. Among you are the leaders of tomorrow in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—studies collectively known as STEM.

As you know, the STEM fields are essential, if we are going to address the great challenges of our day—including the challenges of feeding a growing global population, providing clean water and energy for them, limiting climate change, and making the most intelligent possible use of our natural resources.

So we hope to encourage all of you to keep going in math and science—by showing you the exciting possibilities that await you.

We know that you have superb teachers at Harlem Academy, so we are very pleased to introduce you to the equally superb teachers here at Rensselaer, including Professor Ron Eglash, who studies the connections between culture and science.

Here at Rensselaer, we consider science and engineering highly creative endeavors. While our students come to master the fundamentals of their subjects, we also encourage them to apply what they have learned by tinkering, by experimenting, by trying the untried, by using their hands as well as their minds. So we were pleased to introduce the younger middle schoolers to the Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory, or the MILL— a place where our student engineers use absolutely fascinating new tools such as 3-D printing to invent and prototype new products and processes.

I am pleased, also, that our younger students were challenged to launch homemade rocket canisters—fueled by Alka Seltzer and water—precisely five feet in the air in the “Engineering Chemical Reactions” class. You not only learned about the realignment of molecular structures, you utilized formulas, planning processes, data collection, and decision-making— all tools of good science.

This exercise will have served you well if you choose to pursue space exploration, using somewhat bigger rockets. Space is a field where people educated here at Rensselaer long have excelled—as scientists, as engineers, as NASA administrators, and as astronauts. For example, Commander Reid Wiseman of the Rensselaer Class of 1997 served as flight engineer aboard the International Space Station for nearly half a year during 2014. Reid and the other astronauts on his mission completed over 300 experiments for scientists in many different fields, while in space.

Indeed, one of our professors here, Dr. Cynthia Collins of our Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has designed experiments conducted in space. She studies the behavior of communities of microbes. Her finding that a disease-causing bacterium grows more vigorously in the low-gravity environment of space will help us to understand how to keep astronauts healthy on even longer space missions—including, in the 2030s, a manned mission to Mars. Maybe some of you will be on that mission, or engineering the tools for it, or designing experiments to be conducted during it.

Dr. Collins’ laboratory also works on engineering colonies of microbes, with the goal of turning them into factories that produce useful products, including fuels. Did you know that over 3 billion people around the globe do not yet have access to clean cooking fuels, and over one billion people do not yet have access to electricity? So such work is vitally important.

Of course, even more essential than having enough energy, is generating enough food to eat and clean water to drink for the additional two billion people who will join us here on planet Earth by 2050. So we wanted our seventh and eighth grade students to visit our remarkable Darrin Fresh Water Institute on Lake George, which hosts the groundbreaking Jefferson Project. Here, you had the opportunity to “test the waters” as young scientists, learning firsthand how smart water technology is helping us to understand and to protect one of the most beautiful lakes in the United States—and showing us how to preserve fresh water resources for people everywhere.

Our older students also had the opportunity to experiment with growing plants, and to learn about innovative growing techniques such as aquaponic systems that grow fish and food together, and the augmented lighting for plants being developed at our Center for Lighting Enabled Systems and Applications (LESA). In future, we will need your best efforts to feed the world, since the population is growing rapidly, but our supply of farmland is not.

Does anyone know the question we ask all of our students here at Rensselaer?

It is “Why not change the world?” That seems like a big challenge, but we know that young people do have the power to change the world.

Has anyone here heard of a new disease called Zika?

Zika, which is transmitted by mosquitos, can damage the brains of unborn babies when pregnant women become infected. Unfortunately, the disease is still poorly understood, and we do not yet have a vaccine to prevent it or a medicine to cure it. However, here at Rensselaer, two of our students helped find a clue to the puzzle. They used a data tool that combines different kinds of information, and a new visualization technology developed at Rensselaer called Campfire, to reveal when, in a baby’s brain development, the worst damage can occur.

Not only do our students here at Rensselaer participate in groundbreaking research—they are taught using technologies like Campfire that arise out of that research. Is anyone familiar with the concept of “immersion”? When you immerse something in water, what does that mean?

We use immersive technologies to teach here—in other words, the experience of being absorbed by and engaged in a digitally-created world.

We also use “gaming.” Can someone tell me about that?

And we use artificially intelligent characters. Can someone explain “artificial intelligence” to me?

If you chose to come to Rensselaer and to learn Chinese, for example, a class called the Mandarin Project will teach you by making you part of a multi-player game set in China, which uses immersive experiences that combine virtual reality with physical reality, during which you will interact with artificially intelligent characters. In other words, you will be physically here at Rensselaer, but the class will take you on an extended visit to Beijing.

Another class uses Geo Explorer, a mixed-reality mobile game that allows engineering students to inspect, design, and test flood protection systems. We would never send our students out into actual hurricanes! But we want them to understand the destructive force that hurricanes represent, as they design the infrastructure of our cities and towns, and Geo Explorer allows them to have that experience, safely.

I hope that your visit to Rensselaer has inspired you to continue doing the great work you already are doing in science and math. I hope, also, that you keep asking questions, conducting experiments, and exploring your world. I also hope that the path you are on leads you back to Rensselaer, as college students! Because now, more than ever, we need young people like you to become leaders in scientific discovery and technological innovation.

I speak for all of us at Rensselaer when I say it has been a pleasure to have you here.

And now I will open up the floor to a question and answer period, since that is what inquiring minds love most. I will begin by posing a question or two to you:

What was the most interesting activity, experiment or facility you experienced? Why?

Did any of the activities you participated in pique your interest and make you want to learn more about the subject? How can you pursue further knowledge?