Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Black Family Technology Awareness Day Opening Ceremony

Category: University Events
February, 2018
Darrin Communications Center

Remarks at Black Family Technology Awareness Day Opening Ceremony

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

I am so delighted to have this opportunity to welcome the remarkable students of the Capital District to our 18th annual Black Family Technology Awareness Day.

I also want to welcome your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, church leaders, and teachers. Their support for your interest in math and science may well give you wings upon which you will soar.

Indeed, some of you will learn more about human flight in our Jet Engine Workshop, where you will build mini-turbines. Some of you have chosen to program Lego Robotics, while others will create computer-aided designs and turn them into three-dimensional models with 3-D printers. Still others will build intricate domino setups, and behold the magnificent visual patterns that a chain-reaction “domino effect” produces. I hope that the activities of the day get you thinking about all of the exciting possibilities that math and science hold for you.

\Those of us from Rensselaer will be thinking about the exciting possibility—indeed, the likelihood—that among this group of remarkable young men and women are the leaders of tomorrow in science, technology, engineering, and math—fields of studies you may have heard referred to as STEM.

At Rensselaer, we have been educating leaders in these fields since our founding in 1824, nearly 200 years ago. In 1824, as you know, there were no cars, airplanes, televisions, computers, cell phones, or the internet. But there was a big young United States of America with enormous natural resources to be surveyed—and railroads, bridges, and canals to be built so the country could take advantage of its remarkable geography. Rensselaer educated the scientists and engineers who built the infrastructure for trade and communication that turned the United States into a great power.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Two-hundred years…that is a long time ago…no internet or cell phones…that is a ‘galaxy’ far, far away.”

This brings me to the theme for this year’s Black Family Technology Awareness Day, one we have borrowed from Star Wars. Our theme today is “Be a FORCE for STEM.”

It is truly our hope that this day inspires you to be such a force—and to continue to seek opportunities to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics, at home and in your schools and communities.

Many Rensselaer graduates, captivated by the wonders of science at a young age in much the same way that you are, have gone on to become major forces in the fields they pursued—in fields such as space exploration, electrical engineering, computer science, medicine, architecture, business, and the electronic arts.

For example, Commander Reid Wiseman of the Rensselaer Class of 1997 made his mark in space, as flight engineer aboard the International Space Station for nearly half a year during 2014. Commander Reid and the other astronauts on his mission completed over 300 experiments for scientists in many different fields, while in space.

Another Rensselaer graduate, Steve Sasson of the Class of 1972, invented the first digital camera in 1975—without which there would be no selfies, Snapchat, or Instagram—or the joy of carrying a photo of your best friend on the phone in your pocket. Networked email and the @ sign in email addresses were also invented by a Rensselaer graduate.

Today, Rensselaer people continue to explore, discover, and invent.

In our state-of-the-art Cognitive and Immersive Systems Lab, professors and students are working to develop intelligent Situations Rooms that interface naturally and directly with groups trying to make critical decisions. These Situations Rooms use different kinds of artificial intelligence to see, hear, recognize, analyze, and understand speech, gestures, and interactions between people—and to offer information and analysis in real time to the group. One day, you may learn in a smart classroom like this, or doctors may use our Situations Rooms to make difficult diagnoses, or government officials to rescue people after a natural disaster such as a hurricane. One can only imagine the possibilities had the Jedi Council had our Situations Room!

And this project represents just one way that our students and faculty at Rensselaer are engaged in improving the ways that machines interact with people. For example, here is another. Does anyone know who Alexa is? Yes, Alexa is the ‘voice’ of the Amazon Echo devices, which users converse with, to control things such as smart thermostats or to get information.

This past November, a team of Rensselaer students competed in the finals of the Amazon Alexa Competition, which challenged students to use artificial intelligence and natural language processing technologies to build a better socialbot than Alexa. A socialbot is a software program that mimics human behavior in automated interactions. The Rensselaer team, named “Wise McCaw,” began with the wise insight that we humans enjoy being in the company of our friends. So they set out to build a companionable socialbot, programmed to use its personality, humor, and access to online information to conduct enjoyable and engaging conversations with its human counterparts.

If you choose to study science or engineering there is a very good chance you will participate in adventures like this—and contribute to new discoveries and inventions.

While Rensselaer people definitely work on the technologies that make the Star Wars movies so exciting—such as space exploration and intelligent robots—everyone at Rensselaer is very focused on using his or her STEM education, also, to address the great global challenges of the 21st century—which include feeding a growing population, limiting climate change, and making the most intelligent possible use of our natural resources.

One of those natural resources is fresh water, which we need to preserve from overuse and environmental degradation—if people everywhere are going to have enough clean water to drink, or to grow food.

Have any of you been to Lake George, an hour north of here? It is considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in America, with famously clear water. Here at Rensselaer, we are studying how the lake works as a system in order to use science to conserve that beautiful water. One of the ways we are doing this is by putting 41 smart sensor platforms in and around the lake that monitor factors such as weather, currents, and runoff. There is even a “plankton cam” that takes snapshots of microscopic species in the lake, which are indicators of the health of the ecosystem.

All the data we are collecting will help us to understand Lake George—and to use that understanding to preserve lakes, rivers, and other bodies of fresh water, not just in our neighborhood, but all around the world.

Maybe some of you, too, will work on environmental challenges like this—and help us to take better care of Planet Earth.

We ask all of our students here at Rensselaer, “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.

There is power in your interest in science, technology, engineering, and math; your dedication to these subjects, as evidenced by your willingness to spend a Saturday learning more about them; and your wonderful support network—the adults who are here with you today. I sincerely hope that these forces always will be with you, and stay with you—so that you continue to “Be a FORCE for STEM.”

Our nation truly needs more young people—like yourselves—to become leaders in these fields.