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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Cisco Alumni Event

Category: University Events
June, 2017
Cisco Headquarters

Cisco Alumni Event

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

I am so pleased to join our alumni and alumnae—as well as our student interns—at Cisco. Greetings, also, to those watching remotely at other Cisco locations.

I want to acknowledge Justin Etzine of the Rensselaer Class of 2018, and our Grand Marshal, which is the highest elected office in Rensselaer student government. He currently is using his technical and leadership skills here at Cisco as an intern.

We also have our Vice President of Institute Advancement, Graig Eastin, with us to answer any questions you might have.

We are so pleased to have this opportunity to tell you about key happenings at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The fact that there are so many of you here today is evidence that there is something truly special about a Rensselaer education.

Certainly our incoming students understand it! We just managed the most competitive admissions process we have ever seen at Rensselaer, with nearly 20,000 applicants for our freshmen class. By definition, all of our accepted students are outstanding, and the Class of 2021 enters as one of the strongest and most diverse classes in our history.

Of course, we are experiencing this demand because the outcomes for our students are so good. We are 9th on the most recent CNBC list of colleges whose alumni and alumnae go on to earn the most money—which is merely a reflection of the more important fact that we educate leaders in innovation, discovery, and entrepreneurship. We are ranked 14th by Forbes on its list of best colleges in the STEM fields. College Choice ranks our Information Technology and Web Science program the best of its kind in the nation. Cisco, we are proud to say, supports scholarships in this wonderful major, as well as in Computer Science, and to promote diversity among our student body. We are doing very well on this front, with a significant increase in the total number of applications from underrepresented minority, women, and international students, for spots in the Class of 2021.

Overall, in 2016, U.S. News & World Report has ranked Rensselaer at 39th among national research universities, our highest ranking in over 20 years.

Our current success is based on the degree to which we anticipate the future, but also the degree to which we embrace a very special educational legacy at Rensselaer.

Nearly two hundred years ago, our first professor and academic founder, Amos Eaton, a botanist and geologist, established a new paradigm for a scientific and technological education—one that required students to actively participate in their own learning. While the usual practice in 1824 was for students to listen passively to lectures, Professor Eaton put his students at the front of the classroom to present acquired knowledge to other students, and to professors. He established the first organized instruction in field work—taking Rensselaer students on adventuresome weeks-long field trips. He also was one of the very first educators in the world to make laboratory experiments conducted by the students themselves part of the curriculum.

In other words, from the very beginning, Rensselaer students learned to engage with the world, to be independent-minded, and inventive.

Our third senior professor and first director, Benjamin Franklin Greene, forwarded Professor Eaton’s work by transforming Rensselaer into a “polytechnic,” which is from the Greek word for “skilled in many arts.” He felt that our resource-rich young country lacked a form of education that suited its great potential to become an industrial power: an education with what he called “the completeness of scholarly culture comprehended in the idea of a ‘liberal education’”—but focused on the applied sciences. To create such a polytechnic at Rensselaer, Professor Greene expanded the course of study from a single year to at least three years—ensuring that Rensselaer engineers graduated with backgrounds in the sciences, literature, philosophy, and the arts.

His reforms prepared Rensselaer students, in other words, to become the people of creativity, focus, and perspective that our nation and the world needed.

Indeed, Professor Greene’s program worked as he intended, and much of the early physical infrastructure of this country—roads, bridges, canals, railroads—was designed and/or built by Rensselaer graduates. Rensselaer was at the absolute forefront of technological change, which is where we remain today.

Rensselaer graduates also went on to connect people virtually—work that you continue today at Cisco—and to lay the foundation for the digital age. It was at Texas Instruments, a company co-founded by J. Erik Jonsson of the Rensselaer Class of 1922, where the first integrated circuit was invented—one based on germanium.

Of course, integrated circuits based on silicon would come to predominate. The first company to manufacture them was Fairchild Semiconductor, one of whose founders was C. Sheldon Roberts of the Rensselaer Class of 1948.

The baton was then taken up by Dr. Marcian (Ted) Hoff of the Rensselaer Class of 1958. In 1968, Dr. Hoff joined the fledgling Intel Corporation, where he had the assignment of serving as a liaison to a Japanese company commissioning parts for a calculator. He worried, however, that Intel would lose money if it executed the inelegant 12-chip design on which the calculator would be based. So, Dr. Hoff invented the first electronic circuit that combined complicated computer functions on a single silicon chip—the microprocessor.

It was Ray Tomlinson of the Rensselaer Class of 1963, who invented email that could be sent from one computer to another. The protocol he developed gave us the @ symbol as well.

Steve Sasson of the Rensselaer Class of 1972 invented the digital camera—one of the first shots in what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which the digital, physical, and biological are merging. Once again, Rensselaer people are at the forefront of this revolution.

For example, Curtis R. Priem, of the Rensselaer Class of 1982, Secretary of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees, is a pioneer in graphical computing who co-founded NVIDIA, based on his graphics chip designs. Today NVIDIA GPUs (graphics processing units) have important applications in self-driving vehicles—and are used in deep learning, artificial intelligence, and high-performance computing.

Clearly, Cisco, too, is forwarding The Fourth Industrial Revolution, by helping manufacturers to manage devices connected to the Internet of Things. As we seek insights within the flood of data derived from connected devices, social media, digital photography, scientific and medical journals, and many other sources—the IBM Watson cognitive computing platform is an important breakthrough that can absorb enormous amounts of diverse data quickly—and make inferences and predictions from it. Watson was developed by a team of Rensselaer alumni led by Dr. David Ferrucci of the Class of 1994.

Today, as we anticipate the 200th anniversary of our founding in 2024, take inspiration from our remarkable alumni and alumnae, and prepare the next generation of leaders to steer technological progress—we are re-envisioning a Rensselaer education within the paradigm of The New Polytechnic.

The New Polytechnic is animated by two factors:

First are contemporary challenges such as a changing climate; our food, water, and energy supplies; national and global security; human health and the mitigation of disease; our need for sustainable infrastructure; and the allocation of valuable natural resources.

Second is the advent of powerful new tools of discovery and understanding, in fields such as high-performance and cognitive computing, neuromorphic and quantum computing, data analytics, and genomics, whose usefulness spans many different fields of endeavor.

The challenges, and attendant opportunities, demand broad-based collaborations across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions—and the ability to apply knowledge from one domain to another.

Building on the legacy of Amos Eaton and Benjamin Franklin Greene, we deliberately educate our students to be leaders—by developing their intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and global view. Over the past 18 years, we have ensured the “scholarly completeness” of the education we offer them, by creating new degree programs and new academic concentrations in all five of our schools.

In the School of Science, these programs include a concentration in Neuroscience, the top-ranked Information Technology and Web Science degree program I mentioned earlier, and a doctoral program in Biochemistry and Biophysics.

In the School of Engineering, at our Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory, or the MILL, we are enabling our students to learn about, and to use, exciting new manufacturing technologies that include 3-D printing, advanced robotics, and advanced composites. We have created a new Advanced Manufacturing certificate program for graduate students.

In the Lally School of Management, we have new Master of Science degree programs in Technology Commercialization & Entrepreneurship, in Quantitative Finance & Risk Analytics, in Supply Chain Management, and in Business Analytics. These programs also provide the basis for degree concentrations for our undergraduates. In fact, we have a five year co-terminal degree program, which offers students the opportunity of getting a Bachelor’s degree in a range of majors, and a Master’s degree in one of these concentrations.

In the School of Architecture, ranked 17th in the country by Design Intelligence, there is a renewed focus on Building Science. At our Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology, or CASE, a research partnership with architecture and engineering firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, students in our graduate program in Built Ecologies develop radically innovative, sustainable building systems informed by the behavior of natural systems, and by emerging technologies.

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. Notably, our HASS major in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, is ranked 8th in the country.

We also have enabled intellectual agility, through major multidisciplinary platforms and initiatives, such as our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies and The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or the Rensselaer IDEA. The Rensselaer IDEA has inspired projects such as The Jefferson Project at Lake George.

The Jefferson Project, a partnership with IBM and the environmental group, The Fund for Lake George, is using Lake George—an hour north of our Troy campus—as a model for a new data-intensive, science-based paradigm for fresh water conservation. Our studies of Lake George are based on enormous amounts of streaming observational data provided by 41 sensor platforms, some of them invented just for this purpose—as well as sophisticated data analytics, data visualization, modeling, and computation; and experimentation. This project is making Rensselaer a leader in the study of fresh water resources, with an approach that will be applicable to many other bodies of water. In fact, the Jefferson Project is featured in the current issue of the Smithsonian Magazine. Given the crisis of water contamination we are seeing in cities and towns in the United States—as well as persistent, devastating droughts around the world—the work of the Jefferson Project is urgent, indeed.

The Rensselaer IDEA also has provided the impetus for a new partnership with IBM, the Center for Health Empowerment by Analytics, Learning, and Semantics, or HEALS. Located on the Rensselaer campus, the HEALS Center is a five-year, $20 million effort to prevent the progression of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. HEALS is bringing together Big Data analytics, state-of-the art machine learning, and the technologies of the Semantic Web, to find insights within data from many different sources, including clinical data, lifestyle data provided by the patient, health or wellness data from mobile fitness tracking devices, and social network data from shared online activities. The goal is to enable individuals to improve their own health by providing health information customized for their specific medical, environmental, and life situations.

At our new Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, or CISL@EMPAC—another $20 million multi-year partnership with IBM—we are creating an astonishing platform for collaboration. The CISL brings together Rensselaer research in high-performance, neuromorphic, and cognitive computing; in artificial intelligence and human cognition—with research in computer vision, acoustics, haptics, and immersive technologies of all kinds. The goal is to create Situations Rooms that bridge human perception with intelligent systems in an immersive, interactive setting—enabling environments such as a cognitive design studio, a cognitive boardroom, a cognitive medical diagnosis room, a cognitive analyst room, or a cognitive classroom. Using hierarchies of interacting cognitive agents, human-scale immersion, and interactivity, these are rooms that see, hear, anticipate, and inform their occupants in multiple modes—with the goal of vastly enhancing group decision-making and learning.

Participation in such multidisciplinary projects not only offers our students a unique research-based learning opportunity, in and of itself—but many of our pedagogical innovations arise directly out of such research. A prime example is “The Mandarin Project,” a class we have developed to teach the Mandarin Chinese language and culture. The class engages students by making them players in a semester-long group game narrative—and uses mixed-reality immersive environments for cultural adaptation.

Not only do our students learn more quickly with this approach, they learn within a cultural context. Now, we are using the Mandarin Project as a test of the intelligent immersive classroom being developed at CISL. Within this classroom, we soon will encourage our students to use their knowledge of Chinese even more resourcefully, by asking them to complete complicated tasks within an immersive scene, by interacting with artificially intelligent cognitive agents.

To encourage all of our faculty to incorporate active, blended learning technologies into their teaching, we have created the Teaching and Learning Collaboratory, which includes a faculty board that considers the cutting-edge pedagogical possibilities arising out of Rensselaer research, and runs workshops for faculty, staff, and graduate students about teaching innovations. The resources of the Collaboratory also include a well-equipped Beta Classroom, located on the first floor of the Folsom Library, which allows our faculty to pilot new technologies and pedagogical approaches.

Many of our teaching innovations are about introducing new cross-disciplinary approaches to problem solving. For example, the program we call DATUM, or Data Analytics Through Undergraduate Mathematics, incorporates data analytics into our mathematics courses, beginning in the freshman year.

With another initiative, Art_X@Rensselaer, we help our students to see, and to understand, the science in and of art, and the art in and of science. An example is the exploration of ideas such as the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio, which are found in nature, can be expressed mathematically, and are important in art, architecture, and design. Now, in design classes taken in all engineering disciplines, students will have the opportunity to address aesthetics, and its relationship with other considerations such as function, budget, safety, and performance.

Offering a framework for all of our efforts in student growth and development is Clustered, Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS. CLASS is about clustering to connect our students more strongly to each other, and to the larger Rensselaer community. Since the reality is that our students live at Rensselaer, and they grow at Rensselaer, this clustering is both residential, and time- or developmentally-based.

On the residential front, all first- and second-year students live in tight-knit communities centered in their residence halls, with live-in Assistant Deans supporting them. If, later in their college careers, they choose to move off campus, they are still connected through our Greek Life or Off-Campus Commons. We now have opened an Off-Campus Commons on 15th Street in Troy as an actual physical gathering place for our off-campus students.

Time-based clustering allows us to offer programming and experiences specifically designed for each developmental stage of a college career.

Our most transformative teaching innovation is the Summer Arch, a reimagining of the academic calendar. Under the Summer Arch, our students remain on the Troy campus after their sophomore year—for a full summer semester of junior-level classes. They then spend one semester of the traditional junior year away from campus, but still graduate within the typical time span. We are piloting the Summer Arch this summer and next summer, before making it the required academic experience for all of our rising juniors in 2019.

Both piers of the Summer Arch will benefit our students greatly. During their summer on campus, as the only “full” class present, the rising juniors will profit from the focused attention of our faculty and Student Life staff at a key point in their educational careers, before they pivot to more advanced classes. They also will enjoy professional, cultural and recreational opportunities only available in the Capital Region during the summer.

Then, during their “away” semester, Rensselaer juniors will be able to do an extended co-op or internship experience; to perform research; to volunteer; or to launch an entrepreneurial business—or participate in some thrilling combination of the above. We will encourage them to expand their horizons by going abroad.

We also will encourage all of you to find opportunities for Rensselaer juniors at Cisco—and to seize the chance to use their talents for a full semester.

After the intellectual adventure and unique experience enabled by the Summer Arch, we expect these students to be in even greater demand with employers and graduate schools—although Rensselaer students already are in great demand.

To sum up—we educate our students with the full expectation that they will change the world, as Rensselaer alumni, alumnae, and faculty have for nearly 200 years.

We could not realize this grand vision, however, without the support of our alumni, alumnae, and friends.

On 13th, 2017, we will launch our new capital campaign, which will support the vision we have articulated and which will sustain Rensselaer for its third century. We hope all of you will take a leadership role in the campaign. In fact, I personally hope that you will attend Reunion and Homecoming Weekend from 12th to the 15th, 2017, where the full panoply of our many accomplishments and new initiatives will be on display.

I thank you all for listening—for serving as such wonderful ambassadors for Rensselaer—and as such wonderful evidence for the value of a Rensselaer education.

Now, I would be delighted to answer any questions….