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Black Families Technology Awareness Day Opening Ceremony

February, 2022

Black Families Technology Awareness Day Opening Ceremony

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

Welcome, everyone, to Black Family Technology Awareness Day at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

We are so pleased that students of all ages, around the country and across the globe, have registered for today’s activities—as well as their parents, guardians, teachers, and mentors.

I am so glad that all of you are with us!

I must begin by thanking Mr. Wexler, our Vice President for Enrollment Management, and Dr. Lee McElroy, Jr., Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics, for putting together our event.  

To our students—as Mr. Wexler mentioned, today I am president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s oldest technological research university. But I once was just like you—a student who loved science and math, and who discovered that a lot of fun could be had with the tools of science and math. 

For example, when I was in elementary school, I used to capture live bees in my family’s backyard. I kept them in Mason jars under the back porch, so I could observe how they behaved and what they ate under different conditions—such as the relative amount of light and darkness they were exposed to during daylight hours.

In other words, I was conducting experiments in circadian biology—which refers to the chemical clocks inside our cells that respond to cycles of light and dark during a 24-hour day. Our circadian clocks tell us when to feel alert, when to feel sleepy, when to feel hungry, and so much more. 

A month from now, when most of us in the United States set our kitchen clocks forward an hour for Daylight Saving Time, you probably will feel sluggish for a few days afterwards. So, it will not surprise you to learn that disruptions in circadian rhythms affect human health, or that circadian biology is an important area of research here at Rensselaer.

As a middle school student, one of the ways that that I applied what I was learning about science and math was by building go-karts with my father, which I would then race on the streets in my neighborhood. I learned a lot about the principles of mechanics and aerodynamics from this experience, since I quickly figured out that the skill of the go-kart driver was less important than the aerodynamic design of the vehicle. The sleeker go-karts were unbeatable!

I am sure that all of you are similarly curious about the way things work in the world around you—whether in the natural world, or in the world that we humans shape through our understanding of science, math, and engineering. For our younger students, engineering is the application of science and math to designing and building things that make our lives better—whether bridges, smartphones, LED lights, or robots.

I am so glad that you will have the fun today of participating in design challenges and experiments—that you will design the car of your dreams, or make a lava lamp using Alka Seltzer, or consider how to grow plants in space to feed astronauts on long voyages, or visualize the proteins that allow organisms to thrive in the most extreme environments on Earth. These include the hydrothermal vents at the sunless bottom of the ocean, where the magma from volcanoes heats near-freezing sea water to as much as 700 degrees Fahrenheit.

I hope that your sessions today will reinforce for you how powerful a STEM education really is—and also that it is possible to think and explore like a scientist or engineer every day, in school, at home, or out in the world.

We always say to our students at Rensselaer, “Why not change the world?”

That is our challenge to them—but also an expression of confidence in them, because we know that young people do change the world. 

Our students work alongside their professors on the very hardest of problems—including understanding and fighting COVID-19 and preventing future pandemics, and finding ways to mitigate climate change—whether by designing smarter, more energy-efficient schools, houses, and offices; or by devising better batteries for the storage of solar or wind energy; or by inventing electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft—multi-rotor helicopters that could take us from place to place with zero carbon emissions!

I am so glad that you will have the opportunity to get to know Rensselaer students and faculty during your program today—since we very much hope that your studies will lead you to a STEM education in college—and, possibly, to Rensselaer in a few years. We always are looking for excellent students!

We truly do need all of you to change the world. While I have emphasized the power of the tools you are gaining by studying science and math, it is your own spirit and sense of inventiveness that will determine how you use those tools. 

The world needs that special quality only you can bring, to address its greatest problems and to create sweeping new opportunities that benefit all of us.

So, continue to follow your curiosity, continue to imagine the improvements you would like to see in the world around you, and continue to learn as much as you possibly can. 

Please, enjoy the program today! 

Now, please allow me to introduce you to someone else who loved math and science as a student. He went on to earn a degree in mechanical and industrial engineering from Clarkson University—and he has used this education to engineer a better nation, and a better world, as a leader in government. 

Congressman Paul Tonko represents New York’s 20th Congressional District, which includes the City of Troy, the hometown of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He serves on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, chairing the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. He also serves on the Committee on Natural Resources and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

He is one of the most enthusiastic advocates in our nation for STEM education—as well as for clean energy technologies; for the protection of fresh water resources; and for investments in groundbreaking research in science and engineering.

Before being elected to Congress, Congressman Tonko was the President and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority—and, as such, an important partner for Rensselaer. Before that, he was a member of the New York State Legislature for 25 years.

Please join me in welcoming Congressman Paul Tonko…

We also have with us Mayor Patrick Madden of the City of Troy, New York. He was first elected in 2015 and has dedicated his service since to strengthening our neighborhoods and expanding economic opportunity in our communities. 

Previously, Mayor Madden served for 30 years as Executive Director of the Troy Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, a community development corporation that has helped thousands of families purchase their first home.

Mayor Madden earned a B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science from the State University of New York at Albany and his juris doctor from the Albany Law School.