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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Harlem Academy Collaboration for Innovation

Category: University Events
May, 2018
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! How was your first day here?

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

We are honored to partner with Harlem Academy in the Collaboration for Innovation Program held here in late spring every year. At Rensselaer, we are well aware that Harlem Academy accepts motivated students, whom it prepares to thrive academically and poise for great success at top secondary schools. We know that among you are the leaders of tomorrow in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—studies collectively known as STEM. So we are glad to have you with us and hope that some of you will make attending college here a goal.

Indeed, we are so delighted that this fall, we will welcome our very first Harlem Academy student to our freshman class, Alexandria Brown. She attended the Collaboration for Innovation program as a middle schooler in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

As you know, the STEM fields are essential, if humanity is going to address the great challenges of our day—including the challenges of feeding a global population that is likely to include a billion more people in just the next dozen years: the challenge of providing clean water and energy for them while limiting climate change; the challenge of mitigating diseases and improving human health; and the challenge of building a sustainable infrastructure for society.

Rensselaer students and their professors work together on all these challenges, as you will learn over the next few days. This work is crucial to our collective future, so we hope to encourage all of you, too, to keep going in math and science—by showing you the exciting possibilities that await you.

We know that you have wonderful teachers at Harlem Academy, so we are very pleased to introduce you to the equally wonderful teachers here at Rensselaer.

They include Professor Rick Relyea, Director of our Darrin Fresh Water Institute and the Jefferson Project at Lake George. Lake George is an hour north of here, with famously clear water that is being stressed by human encroachment. The Jefferson Project intends to understand those stressors, through experimentation, and through the use of digital technologies that include 41 smart sensor platforms that measure different aspects of the lake in real time, and powerful computer modeling and visualization that help us to see how the data generated by our sensor platforms add up to give us a picture of Lake George as a complicated system of systems. The goal is very large: understanding how to care for fresh water systems in general, so humanity always has the water it needs. 

Of course, an important subsystem is the life in the lake, beginning with the microscopic, drifting creatures known as plankton. Tomorrow, our fifth and sixth graders will work with Professor Laura Christian and Professor Richard Bonocora to explore a powerful tool used by biologists to understand living things: the use of fluorescence to analyze what is happening at the microscopic level.

Some of you will visit our Manufacturing Innovation and Learning Laboratory (MILL), where our students use exciting new technologies, such as 3D printing, robotics, and advanced composites, to prototype and produce products of their own design.  We have other such maker spaces on campus, with the tools that allow our students to bring new ideas into the world.

Others of you will visit downtown Troy and devise a potential plan, with advice from local architects, for a site that the city of Troy is hoping to develop. Here at Rensselaer, we educate architects, as well as scientists, social scientists, managers, engineers, and artists. Designing buildings to be beautiful, comfortable, and energy-efficient is another way to make great use of the skills in mathematics and science you are developing.

Whatever activities you engage in over the next few days, I believe that you will learn something striking about Rensselaer—about how much we believe in minds-on, hands-on learning—that all us in the STEM fields expand our minds by tinkering, experimenting, and problem-solving, as well as by reading and absorbing information from our teachers and colleagues.

I hope you will continue to tinker, experiment, and solve problems, even when you are not in school.  When I was young, I experimented with live bees I captured in jars. I learned about their circadian rhythms—in other words, the internal clocks inside all living creatures that tell us, for example, to be alert in the morning and to be sleepy at night—by seeing how those bees behaved differently in light and dark conditions, and with different diets. Today, at Rensselaer, Professor Jennifer Hurley and her students are studying how the circadian clock works at the molecular level—important research, given that there is a strong connection between disruptions and disorders of our internal clocks and health problems.

Another way I explored our physical world as a child was by building and racing go-karts. I worked to make them faster by concentrating on eliminating air drag. Today, at Rensselaer, Professor Michael Amitay and his students work on active airflow controls to enable much more efficient airplanes, wind turbines, and other mechanical systems.

So, I hope all of you will be alert to your own curiosity about nature and mechanics, and that you pursue the things that make you curious. It may well lead you to something important.

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, through scientific discovery and technological innovation.

Your education and your experiences are helping all of you to develop your own super-powers. I hope that over the next few days, you develop a greater sense of what you might accomplish in future.

And now, since I have been encouraging your curiosity, I will be glad to answer any of your questions.

First, however, I will begin by posing a question or two to you:

What lesson in science and math has been most exciting to you so far?

Are there any mysteries in the natural world around you that you would like to solve?