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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

First-Year Parents Welcome Reception

Category: Regional
August, 2019
EMPAC Concert Hall
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Good afternoon. I am delighted to welcome all of you to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—and to the Rensselaer family. 

I hope that moving in went well, and that saying a temporary good-bye was not too difficult. I can assure you that we will do everything in our power to keep our students safe, happily connected to the community here, and thriving both academically and personally.

We are so pleased that they have chosen to attend Rensselaer. The Class of 2023—and, for the architects, the Class of 2024—is, academically, the highest-achieving class we ever have enrolled, with the highest average SAT scores in our history, and it includes 78 valedictorians or salutatorians.

It also is one of the most diverse classes we have welcomed, with record numbers of underrepresented minorities, and great geographic diversity, encompassing first-year students from 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and from 23 countries outside the United States. I know that some of you have traveled a long way to get our students settled—I thank you for joining us.

The Class of 2023 also is ferociously accomplished outside of the classroom. One of its members has won two gold medals at the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships, and another is a nationally competitive speed climber.

The class also includes a number of artists and entrepreneurs, as well as social entrepreneurs already answering the informal Rensselaer motto, “Why not change the world?”

So, you will not be surprised to learn that we expect great things from the Class of 2023.

Ultimately our goals for our students include their developing intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view—qualities that we consider crucial in a world with sweeping global challenges that demand collaborations across borders of all kinds. The “polytechnic” in the Rensselaer name comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” Under a vision we term The New Polytechnic, we bring together a multiplicity of perspectives, across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations, to address humanity’s grand challenges, and to educate leaders in the process.

We know that the friendships our students forge with each other will play an important part in their development. They already are beginning to establish those friendships, with the five-day Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond program they are now embarked upon. This program introduces them to the region surrounding Rensselaer through outdoor adventures, cultural and historical experiences, and community service opportunities—while encouraging them to bond with each other. By the time they attend their first classes, our students will have found classmates with whom to share the excitement and challenges of their first year.

And this is just the first of many programs designed to build a sense of camaraderie among our students. Our Office of the First-Year Experience provides freshmen with support in acclimating to every aspect of their new environment.

It is part of what we consider one of the very best student experiences in the nation—we refer to it as Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS. Since our students live here and grow here, CLASS is based on both residential- and time-based clustering. With CLASS, we nurture Rensselaer students in tight-knit, residential groups.

Should they decide to move off-campus as upperclassmen, they still will be part of a strong residential community through the Off-Campus Commons—which now has a physical home based on the campus, and where we run an app-based, free Safe Ride program that gets off-campus students safely home until late at night. 

Should our students decide to join a fraternity or sorority at Rensselaer, they will be part of our Greek Life Commons. During the last academic year, our Greek Life Task Force developed, with broad community input, a series of sensible recommendations for ensuring that our Greek houses offer a safe environment that is supportive of student success in every realm. We currently are implementing those recommendations.

CLASS also is about offering our students opportunities appropriate to their stage of development, all led by a Class Year Dean.

One such example is our reorganization of the academic calendar, The Arch, which is designed to help our students pivot from the first two years of exploratory study, to the specialized focus of the last years of undergraduate work. 

Under The Arch, all undergraduates remain on campus during the summer after their sophomore year, completing junior-level classes. During their summer on campus, they profit from the exclusive attention of our faculty and staff at a critical juncture in their educational careers. Our Center for Career and Professional Development focuses on these rising juniors, offering programs, panels, and networking opportunities, to help them choose their away experience.

Then, during the traditional junior year, our students leave campus for at least a full semester, to enjoy an intellectual adventure specifically suited to their own passions and interests—and still are able to graduate on time. That adventure may be a semester spent studying abroad, an internship in their chosen field, an intensive research project, a volunteer service post, or the launch of an entrepreneurial enterprise.

Under The Arch, our students not only expand their academic horizons—they also develop professional skills and exposure to new cultures of all kinds. Rensselaer graduates have long been in high demand from the best employers and graduate schools. The Arch experience only makes them more outstanding.

Our pedagogy at Rensselaer is truly innovative, and often arises out of Rensselaer research. This summer, within The Arch, we introduced “AI-Assisted Immersive Chinese,” a six-week course arising out of the Mandarin Project, which has developed a group game narrative to teach the Mandarin Chinese language and culture. This course represented the academic debut of a groundbreaking smart, immersive classroom developed by our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, a partnership with IBM Research. The classroom combines artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies to offer students cultural experiences as they learn, with no plane ticket required.

As we educate our students for deep knowledge in their chosen fields, we also ensure that they are gaining essential perspectives across disciplines.

With humanity generating enormous amounts of digital data—an estimated 463 exabytes every day by 2025—we believe that every Rensselaer graduate, in every field, is going to need to understand how to find insights within diverse datasets to define and address complex problems. So, we are the first university in the nation to institute a requirement in “data dexterity,” which has every undergraduate completing two data-intensive courses, and we have begun offering a multidisciplinary Data Science and Engineering minor.

With an initiative we refer to as Art_X, we will ensure that our students learn about the many concepts common to the arts, architecture, mathematics, the sciences, and engineering—concepts such as symmetry, the Golden Mean, and the Fibonacci Sequence—as a spur to their own creativity.

We also will encourage our students to participate in the multidisciplinary research taking place at Rensselaer. One example of such research is The Jefferson Project, a collaboration with IBM and The Fund for Lake George, which is establishing a new scientific model for the conservation of freshwater resources. The Jefferson Project has turned Lake George, an hour north of here, into the smartest body of water in the world, since we have put in place 50 smart sensor platforms, with over 500 actual sensors—some of them invented for this project—that generate enormous amounts of streaming data about weather, water runoff, water circulation, and water quality.

The data are transformed into information and insights with sophisticated analytics, high-performance computing, modeling, and data visualization, and are combined with other monitoring and experimental data to create a thorough and predictive understanding of the factors that drive the food web and overall water quality—including microplastics, invasive species, and the winter salting of roads around the lake. 

The Jefferson Project now has expanded to Skaneateles Lake, which serves as a drinking water supply for over 200,000 New Yorkers, but which is threatened by toxic algae. In Skaneateles Lake, our advanced monitoring systems have identified a large internal wave, below the surface, that is dredging up sediments rich in phosphorous, a nutrient that is encouraging the algae to bloom. This information will point the way to controlling the algae by controlling the ways that phosphorous enters the lake and interacts with this wave motion. Since algae blooms are a major environmental problem in all 50 states, and around the world, this is important work, indeed.

The Jefferson Project is very much an expression of The New Polytechnic, in that it brings together a fully multidisciplinary group of biologists, Earth and environmental scientists, computer scientists, data scientists, engineers, conservationists, and industry researchers—as well as student and faculty artists, composers, and game designers, who have created an educational interactive touch pool installation based on Jefferson Project science—called The World of Plankton—that is now inspiring the next generation of conservationists.

We also are aware that much of our students’ growth here will take place on playing fields and stages, and out in the larger community helping others. Our varsity athletic programs are excellent, and many of our students participate in intramural or club sports. Approximately 250 clubs are recognized by the Rensselaer Union. They include affinity groups, music and dance groups, many wonderful service organizations, and hobbyist groups, including Rensselaer Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, which advertises itself as the club for those who “like launching valuable scientific equipment off the planet,” and the indispensable Humans vs. Zombies Club, which does such wonderful work in training students to defend the campus against a zombie apocalypse. No matter what interests our students have, they are sure to find a community of the like-minded here.

We appreciate the confidence you have shown in us, in entrusting your children to Rensselaer, and we will do our utmost to take good care of them—and to make certain that they have everything they need to excel.

Of course, your children still need the support of their families, and we need your support as well. I urge you to join our Parents of Rensselaer organization, an important source of information and advice, both for you—and for us.

I look forward to getting to know each of you over the next four years and hope you will visit as often as you can—especially on Family Weekend, on October 18th through the 20th, when you will have the opportunity to attend classes here, and to experience firsthand the very special nature of the education we offer.

In just a moment, I will ask you to join me for a reception outside, at Evelyn’s Café. We will be met there by members of the faculty and staff, who are as eager to get to know you as I am.

Welcome, again, to the Rensselaer family.