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By populating its faculty with academics whose research connected to science and technology, Phelan helped focus the school into a humanities and social sciences institution specifically designed to fit within the context of a technological university.

“Tom Phelan had a wonderful talent for bringing people together from diverse backgrounds and supporting them in innovative projects both on campus and in the surrounding community,” says Winner, who has been a member of the school since 1985 and currently holds the Thomas Phelan Chair. “His understanding of the ethical and spiritual dimensions of scholarship helped create academic programs in which the underlying human values are strongly emphasized.”

The school grew considerably during Phelan’s unprecedented 23-year leadership as dean. The faculty increased by 30 percent; two departments — the Department of Arts and the Department of Science and Technology Studies — were created; and four additional degree programs were added.

“When I arrived on the Rensselaer campus, H&SS had just completed a bold reorganization,” says Winner. “Crucial to these changes was a commitment to excellence in faculty research and its close connection to improvements in undergraduate and graduate education.”

Shortly after joining the arts department, Professor of Arts Neil Rolnick worked with his colleagues and department head Larry Kagan to develop Rensselaer’s integrated electronic arts graduate program.

“Our biggest goal was to create an academic program that set Rensselaer apart from what other schools were offering, in order to attract serious artists,” says Rolnick. “Many other universities taught different facets of electronic arts — music, video art, computer imaging — as separate disciplines, so our emphasis was on teaching them as different faces of the same discipline.”

Today the master of fine arts in multimedia/video communications program is ranked 6th in the nation, according to the 2008 U.S.News & World Report guide to “America’s Best Graduate Schools.” In the fall of 2007, the school admitted the first students into its new Ph.D. program in electronic arts — one of only a few doctoral programs in the United States.

“The School of Humanities and Social Sciences was originally created to provide a service to Rensselaer’s engineering and science students, in the form of a core curriculum in the humanities,” says John Harrington, the school’s current dean, a position he has held since 2002. “Tom Phelan helped it to evolve into a school with the academic strength and curricular diversity to stand on its own.”

“A Destination Unto Itself”

Today, under Harrington’s leadership, the school offers a doctoral degree in each of its five departments — the arts, cognitive science, science and technology studies, economics, and language, literature, and communication — and has added a variety of new degree programs.

In addition to the recently implemented Ph.D. program in electronic arts, a doctoral program in cognitive science was announced in early 2004, with an emphasis on developing next-generation “intelligent” systems. Researchers in the program largely focus on human perception, attention, motor control, memory, language, problem solving, and reasoning to model, enhance, predict, and measure human intelligence and performance.

A new undergraduate degree program in games and simulation arts and sciences equips graduates with a suite of the integrated skills necessary for leadership in the game development industry.

Students enrolled in the program work in interdisciplinary teams to complete required classes such as Experimental Game Design, Interactive Narrative, and History & Culture of Games that challenge them to push the boundaries of present-day genres and technologies. They also have the opportunity to concentrate in one of several disciplines — computer science, cognitive science, arts, and human-computer interaction, among others — directly related to existing or emerging career paths in the games and simulation or entertainment industry.

Additionally, the school’s Department of Science and Technology Studies, along with the School of Engineering and the School of Management, administers Rensselaer’s internationally recognized Product Design and Innovation program, which helped the Institute recently earn a title as one of the 60 “most forward-thinking design schools in the world,” according to BusinessWeek magazine.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.