Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at STAR Program

Category: Regional
October, 2018
EMPAC Theater, Level 5
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute! We are delighted to have you with us from across the country.

Does anyone here know of our informal motto?

“Why not change the world?”

That is an invitation and a challenge to our students—but a challenge in earnest, because Rensselaer people have been changing the world for nearly 200 years.

Rensselaer graduates have been responsible for innovations and inventions as significant as…

  • the transcontinental railroad,
  • the microprocessor,
  • the digital camera,
  • networked email and putting the @ sign in our email addresses,
  • the mapping and sequencing of the first genomes of human pathogens,
  • the development of the main ingredient in sunscreen,
  • putting man on the moon, and
  • creating great companies such as NVIDIA, which has pioneered the graphics processing units that have led to breakthroughs in perceptual artificial intelligence, essential to self-driving vehicles, for example.

The education we offer at Rensselaer always has been uniquely well suited to the development of inventors, explorers, discoverers, entrepreneurs, and visionaries of all kinds. Should you decide to come to Rensselaer, you will find that we are entirely committed to helping you, too, to succeed, to lead, to change the world.

As Mr. Wexler mentioned, earlier this month, I had the great pleasure of receiving the W.E.B. DuBois Medal at Harvard University, which honors those who have made significant contributions to African American culture, and more broadly, individuals who advocate for intercultural understanding and human rights in an increasingly global and interconnected world.

Seven other people in different fields were honored alongside me, including Mr. Colin Kaepernick.

Have you heard of him?

As you know, he is the former NFL quarterback who made headlines for kneeling during the national anthem to protest injustice.

In his acceptance remarks at Harvard, Mr. Kaepernick spoke about people unable to thrive, because they struggle just to survive—and then asserted his own responsibility, and our shared responsibility, to fight for others, to uplift them, to empower them.

The W.E.B. Du Bois medal is truly reflective of the work we do here—faculty and students alike. We focus on the greatest global challenges, whether ensuring that a growing world population has sufficient supplies of water, food, and energy, or addressing climate change; whether devising sustainable infrastructure and building design, or finding new answers to poorly understood health challenges such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and Zika; or laying the groundwork for a human mission to Mars.

Because you have to know something to do something—if you come to Rensselaer, we will make sure that you develop deep knowledge in your chosen field. You will be taught by faculty who are truly world class—and who are shaping the futures of their fields. Unsurprisingly, the programs they lead also are world class—and focused on emerging disciplines. But we also will ensure that you use that foundational knowledge to work with those in other majors (disciplines) to solve challenging, relevant problems.

Over the past several years, we have created 22 new degree programs and academic concentrations to prepare our students for the fields of the future. In the School of Science, these programs include a concentration in Neuroscience and an Information Technology and Web Science undergraduate degree program that is ranked first in the nation by College Factual. As a theoretical physicist, I am proud to say that our undergraduate Physics program is ranked 6th in the nation by College Factual. And we are developing a new undergraduate focus in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, growing out of our own research.  

In the Lally School of Management, our strength in data analytics is leading to a new focus in business analytics at the undergraduate level. In the School of Architecture, ranked 13th in the country by Design Intelligence, we have a renewed focus on Building Science—and an approach to design based on the use of multi-modal immersive environments.

In the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS), we have developed a new Bachelor of Science program in Music. With a strong technological focus, it prepares Rensselaer students for 21st-century music careers, which may include composition, performance, or sound design for film, video games, or music social networks. In fact, Rensselaer was a true pioneer in educating students in the electronic arts, and remains one of the best places in the nation to study them, with a Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program that is ranked 6th by TheBestSchools.org, 7th by GameDesigning.org, and 12th by The Art Career Project.

Across all of our departments, we are focused on experiential learning. For many of you, your classroom experiences thus far may have required you to sit at a desk or table, listening and taking notes while your teacher delivered a lesson. When Rensselaer was founded almost 200 years ago, that was considered the only way to deliver a higher education. 

Our founders, on the other hand, had a radically different idea: to send Rensselaer students out into the field to collect data, into the laboratory to conduct their own experiments, and to the front of the classroom to demonstrate what they had learned for their professors and peers.

Today our students continue to learn within this intensely minds-on, hands-on paradigm—and we enhance this experiential learning with remarkable new tools and technologies, many of them arising out of research by Rensselaer faculty.    

For example, we have a project known as the “The Mandarin Project,” which is our first test of a smart, immersive classroom. The Mandarin Project uses a multiplayer, mixed-reality game to speed learning of the Mandarin Chinese language and Chinese culture. If you take this class, you will find yourself engaged in virtual scenarios, such as in a Beijing tea house, that will offer you cultural experiences without having to get on an airplane. You will interact with artificially intelligent virtual characters who will help you master the hardest aspects of the language, such as its tones.  And you, yourself, will be a character in the narrative, which will make learning particularly exciting.

Before you even begin your freshman year here, you may benefit from our cyber-enabled discovery and learning, with a summer Bridge Scholars program for incoming freshmen who need to refresh or bolster their preparation in calculus or physics. It combines a residential component with an on-line course over the summer, and follow-up support during the academic year.

We will encourage experiential learning, as well, by offering you opportunities as undergraduates to participate in research. For example, is anyone here interested in environmental conservation?

You may wind up joining the remarkable group of faculty, students, and IBM researchers in The Jefferson Project at Lake George, which is based at our Darrin Fresh Water Institute on Lake George, an hour north of here, and which is pioneering a new, more scientific model for fresh water conservation. We have equipped the lake and its watershed with more than 50 sensor platforms, some invented just for the purpose. The sensor platforms create enormous amounts of streaming data about the systems that influence water quality, including weather, currents, run-off, the tributaries that feed the lake, and the living creatures in the lake. We then use high-performance computing, modeling, and visualization to understand this data, and develop insights and hypotheses that will allow us to protect the lake.  

We say that Lake George is now the “smartest lake in the world,” in part because the sensor platforms are themselves smart—and can react to environmental conditions—and decide to collect more data when something interesting is brewing, such as a storm.  As such, The Jefferson Project is an example of an Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things—in which both the system and the devices connected to it are smart. At Rensselaer, we not only see this as the future, we are advancing the technologies that will make that future a reality.

Is anyone interested in renewable energy? You may want to take part in projects at our Center for Future Energy Systems to develop new energy technologies. Rensselaer researchers there recently demonstrated that a rechargeable lithium-sulfur battery could be made from the byproducts of paper-making—repurposing waste to create a highly efficient form of energy storage.

Others of you may delve into the work at our Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems, and even contribute to a fundamental theory of “stochasticity” or the randomness inherent in all materials, being developed there. Or you may employ new materials and systems in radically new ways in the built environment at our Center for Architecture Science and Ecology. 

And if you are interested in the life sciences, biomedical engineering, or medicine, you will have many opportunities to participate in research being done at our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, or CBIS—to unlock the secrets of diseases and to find new treatments for them. 

At CBIS, we have a new Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical and Translational Research Training Program dedicated to preparing the next generation of researchers, who are ready to increase our understanding of the disease—and, we hope, to find the first effective treatments. This program includes a summer rotation in clinical research in New York City, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, our affiliate in both research and education. 

Now I have a more difficult question for you. Does anyone here know what the “polytechnic” in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute means?

“Polytechnic” comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” Within a paradigm we term “The New Polytechnic,” we will ground you not only in the fundamentals of your discipline—but ensure that you develop perspectives that cross disciplines, and apply the knowledge gained in one realm to another.

We recognize that no matter what field of endeavor you choose, you will need to use diverse datasets to define and address complex challenges. That is why we are the first university in the nation to include a “data dexterity” requirement in our core curriculum.  All students at Rensselaer must complete two “data-intensive” courses; one to establish the foundations of data modeling and analysis, and a second course that applies modern data analytics within your academic disciplines.

We also will encourage creativity and the ability to think across disciplines with our Art_X @ Rensselaer initiative—which is infused across the curriculum and in co-curricular activities. Through Art_X, we will help you to see, and to understand, the science in and of art, and the art in and of science, in order to spur your imagination in every field—by utilizing concepts such as the Golden Mean and Fibonacci series, the role of aesthetics in functional design, and through the use of unique platforms that sit at the nexus of science, technology, and the arts.

We are well aware, also, that you will learn a great deal outside the classroom and laboratory, simply by being a member of the remarkable Rensselaer community. We are focused on providing the very best student experience in the country. With our Clustered, Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS, we foster the bonds that will help you to thrive.

CLASS will help you to make friends very quickly at the start of your freshman year. Throughout your time here, we will connect you with each other, and with our faculty and staff through residential and time-based clustering. You will live in tight-knit residential groups. You also will have a Class Dean who will be your special advocate, and guide, as you develop throughout your time here.

You will find remarkable opportunities to lead and to explore outside the classroom, whether through Rensselaer Athletics, or in one of the more than 250 clubs and club sports in our Rensselaer Union. We do, indeed, take on the greatest of global challenges at Rensselaer—and our Humans versus Zombies Club is ready to defend us all, in case of a zombie apocalypse. The writers among you will want to consider our Comma Club, and our space-mad Rensselaer Rocket Society.

CLASS will offer you fantastic opportunities to mentor, to lead, to volunteer, to do research, and to do co-ops and internships with remarkable companies and enterprises of all kinds.

And as much as we are focused on our campus experience, we also want to encourage you to test your acquired knowledge out in the world. You may have already heard about The Arch, which allows you to spend a semester or more away from campus during the traditional junior year, and still graduate on time.

In order to do so, all rising Rensselaer juniors remain on-campus the summer after their sophomore year, taking junior-level classes, while benefiting from the undivided attention of their professors and our Student Life staff. Then, with the help of our Center for Career and Professional Development, students choose an away semester experience that suits their interests, whether an internship or launching a business, or a volunteer or research experience, or an approved Individual Learning Experience. We encourage all our students to go abroad, in order to gain insights relevant to the broader world.

Ultimately, in all that we do, we work hard to foster three essential qualities in our students:

  • The intellectual agility to see across disciplines, and to discover, create, and invent;
  • The multicultural sophistication that allows them to reach across generations, cultures, geographies, and sectors to address great challenges; and
  • A global view that recognizes the degree to which the most important risks and opportunities are broadly shared around the world.

We know that all of you are here today because you are excellent students, and have it within your power to change the world.  We hope that you will join us at Rensselaer—and learn to do very great things.

Before I take your questions, I would like to pose one more question to you.

What has surprised you most on this visit to Rensselaer?