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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at STAR Program

Category: Regional
October, 2017

STAR Program

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

Welcome to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We are so delighted to have you with us. I hope that you enjoyed the classes you attended today—and that you have really connected with the current Rensselaer students you have met thus far.

Clearly, you have much in common with them, in that you all are superb students who have—or will have—a lot of choices, in terms of which college to attend.

Our current students chose Rensselaer because it is an irresistibly exciting place to live and to learn. That is why we had nearly 20,000 applications last year—the highest ever—for the just under 1,700 places in our freshman class. This number included a record number of applications from women, underrepresented minorities, and international students—allowing us to assemble one of the strongest and most diverse classes in our nearly 200-year history.

Please allow me to explain what is special about Rensselaer. You may know that we are the first, and therefore the oldest technological research university in the United States, and since 1824, we have educated students for independent-mindedness, inventiveness, and agility. When Rensselaer was founded, higher education largely meant sitting in a hard chair, listening to a lecture, and memorizing the material passively.

Rensselaer was founded on entirely different principles—it was one of the first schools in the world to teach physics and chemistry by having the students perform their own experiments. It was the first school in the world to offer organized instruction in field work—teaching geology, botany, zoology, and civil engineering on expeditionary field trips that lasted weeks. And it was entirely revolutionary in sending students to the front of the classroom, to present their findings and their acquired knowledge to their professors and fellow students.

As you might imagine, such an education produced very confident people, capable of taking on grand challenges, and designing, discovering, and innovating to address them.

Allow me to list just a few of those designs, discoveries, and innovations:

  • The Brooklyn Bridge,
  • The Ferris Wheel,
  • Fenway Park,
  • Baking powder, a landmark in practical chemistry
  • The first long-lasting cathode ray tube that enabled the rise of television,
  • The first supersonic bomber,
  • The microprocessor,
  • The digital camera,
  • Networked email and the @ sign in our digital addresses,
  • The first mapping and sequencing of the genomes of disease pathogens,
  • The graphical processing chips that make interactive gaming such a compelling experience, and that are enabling autonomous vehicles and deep learning, and
  • The IBM Watson artificial intelligence system that became a sensation for beating the very best human champions at Jeopardy! in 2011.

More recent alumni and alumnae are growing sustainable packing and building materials using mushrooms—and addressing the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria with lighting that can be used both to illuminate, and to kill germs, and with lytic enzymes that can destroy such bacteria.

If you decide to attend Rensselaer, we will educate you, too, to address the hard problems—and to change the world.

We will do this, first, by educating you for depth in your chosen field. Many of our programs are top-ranked, including our School of Architecture, our undergraduate Physics program, our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program, and our Information Technology and Web Science program, which is ranked first in the nation.

You will be taught by remarkable faculty, including Professor Heidi Newberg of our Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy, who has discovered that our own Milky Way galaxy has a corrugated shape, and is much larger than previously assumed. Earlier in her career, she was part of the Supernova Cosmology Project team, which made another completely unexpected discovery: that the expansion of the universe is not slowing down due to the force of gravity, as had been assumed—but rather is accelerating, possibly due to a mysterious force referred to as dark energy. For this work, she shared in the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

In other words, if you come to Rensselaer, you will be taught by professors who are at the absolute frontiers of their fields of expertise.

You will learn within the intensely minds-on, hands-on paradigm established by the founders of Rensselaer—with this experiential learning enhanced by remarkable new tools and technologies, many of them arising out of research by Rensselaer faculty.

One example is “The Mandarin Project,” which is being expanded and refined right here in EMPAC (the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center), and which uses a multiplayer, mixed reality group game within a semester-long narrative that speeds learning of the Mandarin Chinese language and Chinese culture. If you take this class, you will find yourself immersed in virtual scenarios, such as in a Chinese tea house or at the Beijing Airport, that will offer you cultural experiences without having to get on an airplane. You will find yourself interacting with virtual characters arising from Rensselaer research in artificial intelligence and natural language processing, who will help you master the hardest aspects of the language, such as its tones. Then when/if you travel to China, you will be able to converse, and you will have developed a bit of cultural nuance and sensitivity. Once perfected for this course, we intend to translate this approach to other learning situations.

In fact, you may use Geo Explorer, a mixed reality and mobile game integrated into an engineering course that teaches the design, testing, and inspection of flood protection systems. While we will not send you out into the field under extreme conditions, such as during hurricanes or earthquakes—with Geo Explorer, you can experience the practical consequences of engineering decisions under such conditions, virtually—and become better engineers for it.

We use cyber-enabled discovery and learning very broadly here, even before some of our students begin their freshman year, with a summer Virtual 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 online course over the summer, and follow-up support programming 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.

The Jefferson Project is designed to offer a new data-driven, scientific model for the protection of fresh water resources. We have equipped the lake and its watershed with 41 sensor platforms, some invented at Rensselaer 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 experimentation to confirm the hypotheses suggested by it. Given a world population that is projected to reach 8.6 billion by the time all of you are 30—protecting fresh water resources is urgent, indeed.

Others of you may discover new, sustainable materials and systems at our Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems—or employ those materials and systems in radically new ways in the built environment at our Center for Architecture Science and Ecology. In fact, this summer two projects created by students in our School of Architecture were named among “The Best Student Design-Build Projects Worldwide 2017” by the architectural news website ArchDaily. Both projects used sustainable building panels, in one case, made from recycled cellulose, and in the other made from an agricultural waste common in the developing world—coconut husks.

Is anyone here 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. And our affiliation with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai will allow additional opportunities for research, and the opportunity to apply and be admitted to the Medical School, as sophomores, through the Mt. Sinai Flex Med program.

We have a new Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical and Translational Research Training Program, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The program is designed to allow Rensselaer students to contribute to research on a terribly painful disease for which we have, thus far, no effective treatment—by exposing students to the full range of investigations related to Alzheimer’s taking place at Rensselaer, including work being done at our Lighting Research Center, which has found that lighting can improve the quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s—as well as a summer rotation in clinical research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Even as you are learning your own field, at Rensselaer, we work hard to help you gain the perspective to see the connections among fields that, at first glance, appear unrelated—because perceiving such connections is the essence of creativity.

Does anyone know what the “polytechnic” in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute means?

It comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.”

We have articulated a vision that we call The New Polytechnic, which will educate you in the fundamentals of your major, and then teach you to lead the collaborations essential to making headway against complex challenges, by helping you to become familiar with disciplines outside your own.

A fluency with data sets, for example, is becoming so essential to work in every field, that we are incorporating data science throughout our curriculum, beginning with the foundational mathematics classes you will take here, in a program called DATUM.

And we have an initiative we call Art_X @ Rensselaer, which extends throughout our curriculum as well, and into campus life, and which is designed to help you to see the science in art, and the art in science. We will help you to understand aesthetic concepts—and we will help you to use that understanding—and the power of perception as well as reason—to unleash your imagination in engineering, design, management, invention, and discovery. And beginning next academic year, we will be offering a Bachelor of Science in Music.

We also will help you to broaden your perspectives outside the formal academic structure—and have a lot of fun—through Rensselaer Athletics, or through the over 210 clubs and activities sponsored by our Student Union, or through recreational activities offered by our world-class East Campus Athletic Village (ECAV), or our Mueller Center, a hub of fitness and wellness.

Supporting your entire student experience is our comprehensive approach to living and learning, our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS.

CLASS will help you to make friends very quickly here at the start of your freshman year. We do not just offer an ordinary student orientation at Rensselaer, but also a week of adventures we call Navigating Rensselaer & Beyond—before classes even begin—which will allow you to bond with other students through wilderness experiences, historical and cultural activities, and community service. If you ask any of our current students about that week—I am quite certain they will tell you it was exhilarating.

Throughout your time here, through CLASS, 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 with live-in Assistant Deans. You also will have a Class Dean who will be your special advocate, guide, and interface with all aspects of the university throughout your time here.

CLASS will offer you fantastic opportunities to mentor, to lead, to travel abroad, to volunteer, to do research, and to do co-ops and internships with remarkable companies.

One of the most important aspects of the student experience here is The Arch, a restructuring of the academic calendar that will offer you even more freedom to explore. With The Arch, you will take junior-level classes on campus the summer after your sophomore year—receiving the undivided attention of your professors and our Student Life staff—and taking advantage of the remarkable cultural and recreational opportunities available in this part of the world in summer.

Then, you will leave campus for either the fall or spring semester of the traditional junior year for an off-site growth experience—possibly to do an intensive internship, or to engage in an extended research project, or to launch a company, or to initiate a volunteer project—here or abroad. You will have all the support you need on this adventure, and you will still graduate within the usual time span.

Rensselaer graduates are in high demand, from the best employers and the best graduate schools in the nation, and around the globe. And with The Arch, they will become even more distinctive, and even more ready to change the world.

You probably have noticed our informal motto here: “Why not change the world?” Indeed, as I shared at the beginning of my remarks, many Rensselaer people have done just that. We hope you will join us—and learn here how to be transformative yourselves.