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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

State of the Institute

State of the Institute


"Creative Connections, Transformative Innovations"

Remarks by Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D. President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 
EMPAC Theater Saturday, October 8, 2016, 9:30AM to 11:00 AM


Thank you, Provost Hajela.

Welcome, everyone. I am hoping that Reunion and Homecoming Weekend has been delightful thus far for all of you—and that our visiting alumni and alumnae are rekindling old friendships, making new connections, generating transformative ideas—and since they are Rensselaer graduates—plotting world domination, of the most positive sort.

Today, we are in for a real treat. We welcome three guests whose inventions and innovations have, indeed, taken over the world, and reshaped our lives for the better:

  • Dr. Marcian "Ted" Hoff '58, whose conception of the microprocessor made possible the personal computer revolution—the Internet revolution—and the entire universe of smart devices at our disposal;
  • Mr. Steven J. Sasson '72, who invented the digital camera that gave those devices eyes; and
  • Dr. B. Jayant Baliga '74, who, through the Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor (IGBT), has helped ensure that the increasingly advanced tools we rely upon for everything from transportation to lighting to medicine, are not ruinous in terms of their energy costs—but as efficient as possible.

All three earned degrees in Electrical Engineering at Rensselaer, and all three are laureates of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation's highest honor for technological achievement, bestowed by the President of the United States on the leading innovators in our nation.

I will introduce them shortly, but first, I offer a brief "State of the Institute," so that our alumni and alumnae can learn how we are making the education that has undergirded this audience full of remarkable people, even more remarkable.

Since each of our National Medalists devised their world-altering innovations while working in industry, at iconic companies, I will begin today by quoting another icon of industry, Steve Jobs:

"Creativity," Jobs said, "is just connecting things."[1]

He continued, "When you ask creative people how they did something…they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That is because they were able to connect experiences they have had, and synthesize new things."

The question for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is how do we encourage such "just connecting" of things—whether of concepts, or people, or digital elements—among our faculty, staff, community, and above all, among those students it is our privilege to educate?

We begin with a vision for Rensselaer itself that is predicated on potentiating such linkages. We have embraced our history as a "polytechnic," or school of "many arts."

At the same time, we have recast our educational approach within a paradigm we call, "The New Polytechnic."

The "New Polytechnic" is animated by two factors:

First, the advent of powerful new tools of understanding, in fields such as high-performance and cognitive computing, data analytics, and genomics, whose usefulness spans many different fields of endeavor—

Second, contemporary challenges such as a changing climate, and new, and not well understood, diseases such as Zika and Ebola—which are global, complex, and interconnected.

Such opportunities and such challenges demand broad-based collaborations across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions. As The New Polytechnic, we have structured Rensselaer as a great crossroads for such collaborations.

Fundamental to this vision has been the hiring of over 350 new tenured and tenure-track faculty members in our "signature thrusts," —promising areas of multidisciplinary research that are of fundamental significance in the 21st century, including:

  • computational science and engineering;
  • biotechnology and the life sciences;
  • nanotechnology and advanced materials;
  • energy, the environment, and smart systems; and
  • media, the arts, science, and technology.

These investments have elevated our profile as a major technological research university, and strengthened our undergraduate and graduate curricula—with new degree programs and new academic concentrations in all five of our schools.

In the School of Science, they include a concentration in Neuroscience, and a doctoral program in Biochemistry and Biophysics.

In the School of Engineering, at our Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory, or the MILL, we are enabling our students to learn about, and to use, exciting new manufacturing technologies that include 3-D printing, advanced robotics, and advanced composites.

In Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, these include both graduate and undergraduate degree programs in Cognitive Science; a master's program in Human-Computer Interaction; a doctoral program in the Electronic Arts, as well our superb undergraduate programs in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences; in Design, Innovation, and Society; and in Sustainability Studies. We are developing a new Bachelor of Science in Music with a strong technological focus. And we have changed our focus in Economics to reflect what we do best here—to make it more quantitative, as well as behaviorally focused.

In the Lally School of Management we have new Master of Science degree programs in Technology Commercialization & Entrepreneurship, in Quantitative Finance & Risk Analytics, in Supply Chain Management, and in Business Analytics.

In the School of Architecture, ranked 15 in the country by Design Intelligence, there is a renewed focus on Building Science, and unique sustainable design programs emanating from the Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE).

We also have enabled broad-based collaborations through multidisciplinary platforms and initiatives, such as our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies and The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or the Rensselaer IDEA—as well as through particular projects such as The Jefferson Project at Lake George. The Jefferson Project is using Lake George as a model for a new data—and science-based paradigm for fresh water conservation. This model is based on using enormous amounts of streaming observational data provided by 41 sensor platforms, which include weather stations, tributary stations, floating vertical profilers, and SONAR-based current monitors—some of them invented just for this purpose. It incorporates, as well, sophisticated data analytics, data visualization, computationally-based modeling and simulation; and experimentation that allows us to test and confirm our hypotheses.

The fruitful collaborations The Jefferson Project has inspired—among biologists, earth and environmental scientists, data scientists, computer scientists, engineers of all stripes, artists, environmental advocates, and IBM researchers—have made Rensselaer a leader in the study of fresh water resources. Given the crisis of water contamination we are seeing in places such as Flint, Michigan and Hoosick Falls, New York—as well as persistent, devastating droughts around the world, including in California—this work is urgent, indeed.

Of course, when policy-makers, scientists, engineers, and leaders in industry tackle complex biogeochemical systems such as the hydrological cycle or the carbon cycle—and their intersection with social systems—the difficulties of making good decisions are daunting. At Rensselaer, we focus not just on the great global challenges—but also on the tools that enable people to come together to address them. In another cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration, our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, or CISL@ EMPAC, the tools promise to be absolutely astonishing. CISL is bringing together Rensselaer and IBM research in high-performance, neuromorphic and cognitive computing, in artificial intelligence and human cognition—with research in computer vision, acoustics, haptics, and immersive technologies of all kinds. The goal is to create Situations Rooms that bridge human perception with intelligent systems in an immersive, interactive setting—enabling environments such as a cognitive design studio, a cognitive boardroom, a cognitive medical diagnosis room, or a cognitive classroom. These are rooms that see, hear, anticipate, and inform their occupants in multiple modes—with the goal of vastly enhancing group decision-making and learning.

As The New Polytechnic, we intend to be transformative not just in our research, but in our innovative pedagogy as well—and in the lives of our students. Many of our pedagogical innovations arise directly out of Rensselaer research in fields such as data analytics, gamification, immersive technologies, and artificial intelligence. We have an Institute-wide pedagogical approach, which recognizes the power of Big Data—Data Analytics Through Undergraduate Mathematics—DATUM. In just one instance of the power of such instruction, last year a group of DATUM students created a model of the emergence of different layers of the cerebral cortex in a human embryo, and then combined this with data about brain diseases. Their work yielded an unexpected insight into the stage of brain development at which the Zika virus causes its damage in unborn babies—a hypothesis that was subsequently strengthened by experiments on neural stem cells.

Another prime example is "The Mandarin Project," a class we have developed to teach the Mandarin Chinese language and culture. The class engages students by making them players in a semester-long group game narrative—and uses mixed-reality, immersive environments that recreate the experience of the Beijing airport and a Chinese teahouse for cultural immersion. Interactions with artificially intelligent characters compel our students to use their language skills resourcefully.

Indeed, we find that our students learn more quickly with this approach—and we intend to expand it to other courses as well. However, we were very deliberate in beginning this experiment with a language class—and an attempt to answer the thorny question, how do you immerse students in a new culture, without immediately packing them off an airplane? In a world in which our students will be expected to collaborate across geographies as well as disciplines and sectors, we consider it crucially important that they develop the creative connections that are cultural, as well as idea-driven.

We are now into our second year of another unique pedagogical innovation: Art_X@Rensselaer, which is designed to help our students to see, and to understand, the science in and of art, and the art in and of science, and to explore the ideas that connect art, science, and technology. Although we intend for all of our students to appreciate art in all its forms, Art_X is about helping all of our students acquire a new vocabulary for creativity—and our wonderful faculty have infused it throughout the curriculum.

For example, in the capstone design class taken by seniors in all engineering disciplines, students now address not just considerations such as function, budget, safety, and performance—but also aesthetics, and its relationship with—and sometimes conflict with—other considerations.

Art_X @ Rensselaer does advance art appreciation and understanding, and has become an important part of the student experience outside the classroom. For example, we encourage our students to take full advantage of the productions developed and presented here EMPAC—one of the most advanced performing arts venues in the world, which draws remarkable artists from around the world. A new program called EMPAC+ offers free tickets to all EMPAC-curated events to students who enroll—a gift that may well change their lives.

Designed to develop intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view, is our most transformative teaching innovation: the Summer Arch—built on a restructuring of the academic calendar. Through the Summer Arch, students will remain on the Troy campus, after their sophomore year—for a full summer semester of junior-level classes. They will then then spend one semester of the traditional junior year away from campus, preferably abroad—pursuing a project perfectly aligned with their interests, but still graduate within the typical time span. We will pilot the Summer Arch over the next two summers, before making it a required academic experience for all of our undergraduates in the summer of 2019.

We expect both piers of the Summer Arch to benefit our students greatly. During their summer on campus, they will profit from the focused attention of our faculty and Student Life staff at a key point in their educational careers, before they pivot to advanced classes. They will also take advantage of unique culture, environmental, and professional experience only available in this region in the summers. Then, during their "away" semester, Rensselaer juniors will do a co-op or internship, research, volunteering, or launching an entrepreneurial business—or some thrilling combination of the above. We will strongly encourage and facilitate their going abroad.

In the context of Summer Arch, a key outcome that we seek in our graduates is a greater appreciation and understanding of the global environment in which their careers will unfold. Immersion and day-to-day interactions in vastly different socio-economic and multicultural settings are essential for such learning, and are only possible if one lives and works in those environments. Our faculty and my own leadership team are leading the way. Just this past year, faculty members, Deans, and members of my Cabinet have visited countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and the Middle East—to pursue partnerships. In fact, our Provost is a delegate in Project Interchange, a program that brings leaders from various fields such as government, media, and academia to Israel, to promote new agreements and bilateral cooperation programs. Rensselaer welcomes, and hosts, students and scholars from almost all corners of the globe on our campus. Their presence enriches student learning and creates an environment of collaborative learning and problem solving that is the very essence of the New Polytechnic.

In recent months, several members of the Rensselaer community have expressed to me their concern over the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions. I share their apprehension. We believe that academic boycotts undermine academic freedom, and the type of international research and educational collaborations that Rensselaer encourages with institutions around the world. We will not support such boycotts.

We will continue to seek out and structure partnerships with universities around the world, and with non-governmental organizations and companies—globally.

In fact, several of the global companies that hire our graduates have expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of having student interns for a longer period, and we are working with them to create opportunities specifically for Rensselaer juniors, including international opportunities.

When our students return to campus after their semester away, they will have had new experiences—and will be able to forge new connections. When they graduate after the Summer Arch, we expect them to be in even greater demand with employers and graduate schools—although Rensselaer students already are in great demand.

We currently are reorganizing our Office of Student Life to strengthen the student experience in its every aspect. We are creating five departments, four of which will be led by Assistant Vice Presidents, that focus on key aspects of life at Rensselaer:

  • First, the new Student Transitions department includes pipeline initiatives, student orientation, transfer services, the Office of the Registrar, and the Center for Career and Professional Development;
  • Second, our Student Success department encompasses the offices of the Dean of the First Year Experience, undergraduate Class Deans, the Dean of the Graduate Experience; and the Archer Center for Student Leadership Development;
  • Third, the Campus Experience department will oversee living and learning environments; student rights, responsibilities and judicial affairs; and the Rensselaer Union. With this new department, our goal is to create greater synergies among all parts of the student experience. As we do this, we are intent on strengthening the autonomous, special, historic student-run Union, which we consider one of the defining characteristics of Rensselaer.
  • Fourth, the Student Support and Resource Centers department includes student health and wellness services; veteran and military student services; religious affairs; and multicultural programs;
  • And the fifth department is NCAA Athletics, under the leadership of Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics, Dr. Lee McElroy.

Offering a framework for all of our efforts in Student Life is Clustered, Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS, through which we connect our students to each other, and to the larger Rensselaer and world community. Since the reality is that our students live here at Rensselaer, and they grow here, this clustering is both residential, and time- or developmentally-based.

All first- and second-year students live in tight-knit communities centered in their residence halls, with live-in Assistant Deans supporting them, or (as sophomores) in the Greek Life Commons. If, later in their college careers, they choose to move off campus, they are still connected through our Greek Life or Off-Campus Commons.

Indeed, we are establishing an Off-Campus Commons on 15th Street as a physical place—a place where off-campus students will gather for CLASS-based programs, can take breaks between classes, hold events, or catch a safe ride home.

Time-based clustering allows us to offer programming and experiences designed for each stage of a college career. When our students are freshmen, our CLASS programming largely focuses on awareness of an issue. As they grow here, we increasingly expect them to lead, and offer them opportunities to do so.

We educate our students with the full expectation that they will change the world, as Rensselaer alumni, alumnae, and faculty have for nearly 200 years.

If creativity, is, as Steve Jobs said, "just connecting things"—among the most important connections we are able to foster at Rensselaer, are those that span the generations. I thank our alumni and alumnae for returning for Reunion and Homecoming—for demonstrating to our students how valuable their education truly is—for serving as examples to them—and for modeling for them their own freedom to discover, to invent, and to lead, each in his or her own way.

Thank you.




If creativity, is, as Steve Jobs said, "just connecting things"—among the most important connections we are able to foster at Rensselaer, are those that span the generations.


We educate our students with the full expectation that they will change the world, as Rensselaer alumni, alumnae, and faculty have for nearly 200 years.