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The Honorable Pauline Newman ’47 Lecture

“The New Polytechnic: Addressing Global Challenges, Transforming the World”

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

Taylor Hall, Room 102
Vassar College

Thursday, April 2, 2015

It is a high honor to be invited to Vassar College to deliver the inaugural Pauline Newman ’47 Lecture. I thank the faculty in your distinguished multidisciplinary program in Science, Technology, & Society for this privilege.

Judge Newman is a pioneer—and not merely because she was one of the first female research chemists in American industry—as well as the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The arc of her career is utterly forward-looking, and I hope that all the students with us today take guidance and inspiration from it. Allow me to summarize: After graduating from Vassar College, Judge Newman earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Yale University. However, she found the experience of working as a research chemist in industry not entirely satisfying, and after a few years, she resigned her position and traveled to Paris for an adventure.

Upon returning to New York City, in definite need of employment, she accepted a position writing patent applications.

This was the kind of work, she has said, that was typically “done by either failed scientists or failed lawyers.” However, Pauline Newman was quite the opposite of a failure. Her interest piqued by her patent work, she attended law school, receiving an LL.B. from New York University School of Law, and became an expert in patent law and policy.

Eventually, she helped to persuade the U.S. Congress to create the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit—which has nationwide jurisdiction over international trade legal issues, government contracts, and patents, as well as other subjects—and in 1984, Judge Newman was appointed to that court. Her opinions in all these areas have been influential, and much admired for their fairness.

Hers has been an extraordinary career, but one with which we are familiar at Rensselaer, where a number of our alumni and alumnae have moved from science and engineering to become prominent figures in intellectual property law. They include the Chairman of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees, Judge Arthur Gajarsa, who received a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Rensselaer in 1962, before studying economics and then the law. Judge Gajarsa served 15 years alongside Judge Newman on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. He says this about her: “She is brilliant, her opinions matter—even her dissents often being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court—and she is a very nice person.”

As the President of Judge Gajarsa’s alma mater—the oldest private technological research university in the United States—I especially appreciate Judge Newman’s work in the field of intellectual property, which has guided the growth of technology-intensive industries.

In other words, Judge Newman used the insights and knowledge she garnered as a scientist to do incisive work in another sphere of influence, that of the law. In the process, she has helped to change the world around us, encouraging the movement of discoveries and innovations into the marketplace—towards the improvement of lives around the globe.

Increasingly, as Judge Newman did, it is critical that we draw on the perspectives of multiple disciplines—to gain a multi-dimensional view of the world—in order to make progress.

Today, we are at a watershed moment—one that requires a fundamental re-thinking and repositioning of the nature of pedagogy and research in the academy. Three factors lend some urgency to this.

First, the fact that the challenges we face are increasingly complex, interconnected, and global.

Second, the consequent need to create graduates who are true global citizens and true philomaths, while addressing questions many in our society have about the value of higher education. 

Third, the rise and ubiquitousness of technologies that magnify the power of the individual, that connect us in new ways, while enabling collaborative endeavors not possible before.

Interestingly, a proper context for this required re-thinking is both historical and modern.  The historical context is framed by the original definition and purpose of the liberal (or liberating) arts, while the modern context derives from what today’s challenges demand, and what new technologies both drive and support.

Let us examine each of these factors in turn. 

First—Interconnected global challenges. 

This past January, I had the great privilege of attending the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2015 in Davos, Switzerland. Davos draws 1,500 of the most influential people in business in the world, as well as more than 300 heads of state and government leaders. From these leaders, I heard a great deal of concern about the stability of societies around the globe—given the threats we face at this moment.

These include, of course, new geopolitical tensions and the rise of radical non-state actors. They include climate change, pandemics and other health-related challenges, the global competition for natural resources, and growing income inequality in both developed and developing economies.

Each of these challenges impacts the others, and indeed, the survival of human civilization. Climate change, of course, exacerbates issues surrounding our food, water, and energy supplies. It also is likely to increase the spread of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria. It influences our national and global security. For example, vast reserves of petroleum, natural gas, and mineral wealth in the Arctic, made accessible by melting sea ice, are likely to be a source of new geopolitical tensions.

Climate change also is likely to worsen the inequalities between rich nations and poor ones, as it undermines food and water security at the lower latitudes. Even within a single geography, the risks of severe climate events are greater for those with fewer economic and educational advantages.

Vulnerabilities intersect!

Recent history shows us that when there is a triggering event, intersecting vulnerabilities can, and do, result in cascading consequences. Consider, for example, the Great Sendai Earthquake of 2011 in Japan—and the subsequent tsunami, with its destruction of electrical, transportation, and housing infrastructure, as well as loss of life—coupled with the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the resulting environmental contamination, the long-term risks of cancer from radiation exposures, as well as worldwide economic effects. The very interconnectedness of our systems and societies leaves us vulnerable to such domino effects.

Another example of interlinked complexities is the threat to global food security represented by Colony Collapse Disorder. In the U.S., Colony Collapse Disorder was first recognized when, in the fall of 2006, beekeepers began reporting dramatically high losses of their hives. The European honey bee is a key component of agriculture throughout the world. Fifty-two of the 115 leading global food crops depend on honey bee pollination for fruit or seed set. Eight and a half years after being recognized as a grave threat, the “cause” of Colony Collapse Disorder has not been fully determined. Researchers are concluding that Colony Collapse Disorder is likely caused by a multiplicity of factors including pathogens, parasites, stress factors in the management of bees—including beekeepers moving them great distances to pollinate different fields, and environmental stressors—including exposure to pesticides, even at sub-lethal levels. Again, this is a web-like challenge that cannot be properly addressed without expertise in fields that range from bee genetics, to data science, to agriculture and environmental policy.  

Clearly, large, networked challenges such as these, and others, cannot be addressed by even the most brilliant person working alone, nor by a single discipline, sector, or nation. Collaborations on a grand scale are required, and colleges and universities, as we educate future leaders and convene brilliant scholars, have an obligation to seed, and to support, new approaches to teaching, learning, and problem-solving.

The second factor that creates urgency to redefine what we offer in higher education is the fact that, at this moment, there are more and more citizens, and even some thinkers in higher education, who question the value of a liberal education—indeed, of any form of higher education without immediate practical application in terms of jobs.  There are concerns about access and cost, completion/graduation rates, demonstrated educational outcomes for students, and—with the rise of online approaches such as MOOCs—even the continued benefits of a residential model of education.  These concerns must be addressed and rooted in what we value as a society, and how we see ourselves in the world.

Finally, the advent of remarkable new technologies, especially those enabled by advances in computation and artificial intelligence, not only support individual learning, but especially support multi-disciplinary collaboration in education and research. And, the avalanche of data generated by the Internet of Things—by everything from smart phones and cameras; to low-cost genome sequencing; to instrumented running shoes, automobiles and tractors, biomedical devices, watches—offers us the raw materials for a new understanding of the world.

In fact, data can be considered as a great new natural resource. But a resource is as a resource does.  What we do with any resource—what we do with data—matters. The students here today, no matter what field they enter professionally, almost inevitably will find themselves collaborating with experts in the tools of data collection and analysis.

Of course, the idea that higher education should freely cross and bridge disciplines—is not a new one. Vassar College, for example, has offered interdisciplinary courses for a century. Vassar also consistently has expanded its reach into emerging disciplines, such as cognitive science, where it was the first institution in the world to offer an undergraduate degree, and computer science, where it was one of the first liberal arts colleges in the nation to purchase a computer on which students could learn. Of course, we all know that Vassar is the alma mater of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the great pioneers of computer science.

Although the founding vision of my university was to educate young people in “the application of science to the common purposes of life”—and indeed, we retain our scientific and technological perspective in everything we do—we long have offered an education that is as panoramic, as it is tightly focused.

In 1851, Benjamin Franklin Greene, our third Senior Professor and first Director, renamed the then-Rensselaer Institute, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Polytechnic” means “many arts,” and this change coincided with a radical broadening and deepening of the curriculum. Professor Greene established departments of rhetoric and philosophy, and argued that Rensselaer students should receive a “scientific, literary, philosophic, artistic” education, before they embarked upon their studies in “applied science or art.” As a result, Rensselaer students were educated—even then—for intellectual agility, as well as technical proficiency. In a young country being transformed by new technologies—by trains, bridges, telegraphs, and photographs—they were prepared to lead.

We are re-envisioning the meaning of polytechnic, within the context of modern challenges and opportunities, while drawing on the meaning and teaching of the original seven liberal arts of classical antiquity. They consisted of the Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—first taught together as foundational subjects in ancient Greece; and the Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Arithmetic was about numbers; geometry—numbers in space; music—numbers in time; astronomy—numbers in space and time. The intent was to train the mind how to think, not what to think. The focus was on teaching the art and science of the mind, as well as the art and science of matter. This is not so different than what our educational intent is today. 

Today, we speak of The “New” Polytechnic that supports promising areas of interdisciplinary research and learning, and which uses the most advanced tools and technologies to unite a diversity of perspectives. The New Polytechnic draws on the grammar (natural language processing), the logic, and the rhetoric of thinking machines (sentient digital agents), and of social networks. The New Polytechnic is predicated on the absolute necessity of educating our students in multi-disciplinary and collaborative thinking, and linking our researchers—in the arts, architecture, the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences—as well as in engineering and the applied sciences.

As such, The New Polytechnic is a fresh collaborative endeavor across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions, which serves as a great crossroads where talented people from everywhere meet, connect, and take on the hard problems. Engaged in by a broad spectrum of participants, guided by societal concerns and ethics, The New Polytechnic ultimately facilitates novel and effective approaches to global challenges.

History teaches us that no one can predict from which fields transformative ideas will arise—ideas that will change lives on grand scale. What we can do, in higher education, is to create the conditions for serendipity, by bringing together diverse groups, with a multiplicity of perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds.

Allow me to offer an example of The New Polytechnic in action. Until recent decades, the remarkable diversity of the microbial world was concealed from scientists, because so few species could be isolated from their environments—and their interdependent communities—in order to be cultured in a laboratory and studied. In fact, microbes are still so unexplored that they often are called “the dark matter of life.” However, with the advent of metagenomics—or the ability to sequence genes directly from an environmental sample—the curtain has been lifted on—as microbiologists like to say—who is there, and what they are doing.

The potential applications for this work in terms of human health are enormous. You may well have heard this interesting statistic: In the average human body, the number of bacteria alone that have colonized us represents ten times the number of human cells. Each of us serves as an ecosystem (like a microbial coral reef) for an astonishing and supple range of microbes—which varies over time, and varies among us, depending on factors that include environmental exposures. In fact, an imbalance in the diversity and composition of our microbiome is implicated in many diseases, including allergies, asthma, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. To explore and exploit new tools and technologies in this arena, a very diverse group of Rensselaer faculty recently joined forces to create a Microbiome Informatics Team. They intend to lead in measuring, understanding, and even “engineering” microbial communities within the context of their environments and functions.

Just as metagenomics reveals microbial communities with many unexpected members, our Microbiome Informatics Team includes an array of experts that you might find surprising. Of course, it includes two microbiologists, Professor Karyn Rogers of our Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who studies the relationship between the geochemistry of an environment and the microorganisms found there; and Professor Cynthia Collins of our Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, who studies microbial communities, and “engineers” them using synthetic biology.

Our Microbiome Informatics team also includes Architecture Professor Anna Dyson, who is the director of our Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology, where research is being done in next-generation building systems, including indoor environments that use consortia of plants and microbial communities to filter toxins and release probiotics.

The team also includes mathematician, Professor Kristin Bennett, to help identify patterns in the metagenomics and environmental data, and Professor Deborah McGuinness, our Tetherless World Senior Constellation Chair and Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science.

Professor McGuinness is developing web-based tools for integrating and exploring disparate geochemical and microbial datasets—to find the correlations within them. Professor McGuinness and others are part of a university-wide initiative we call The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or The Rensselaer IDEA. The Rensselaer IDEA brings together our strengths in web science, high-performance computing, data science and predictive analytics, and immersive technologies—and links them to applications at the interface of engineering, and the physical, life, and social sciences, in order to expedite scientific discovery and innovation.

And, significantly, our Microbiome Informatics effort includes two professors from our School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, who are cultural anthropologists—to offer a qualitative dimension to the findings of the group, and to help this diverse team cross barriers in language and practice that divide the disciplines. They are Professor Kim Fortun, whose research focuses on the ethnography of environmental problems, and Professor Michael Fortun, whose research focuses on the culture surrounding genomics.

Ultimately, the Microbiome Informatics Team intends to improve human health by determining which probiotics in the environment help to prevent diseases, by “engineering” microbial communities as alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals, and by finding new targets for personalized medicine. This is how progress is made.

Just as we strive to bring together different ways of thinking among the teams of collaborators we gather at Rensselaer, we also are striving to bring together different kinds of thinking machines in order to address complex global challenges.

Computers, indeed, are beginning to reflect the myriad ways that we humans perceive, learn, and discover. As long as we are aware of the ethical questions their development and use may engender, such tools are a great cause for optimism.

At Rensselaer, we have the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university, a petascale IBM Blue Gene/Q system—which is an Advanced Multiprocessing Optimized System, whose acronym AMOS harkens back to our co-founder, Amos Eaton. AMOS is able to perform more than a quadrillion floating point operations, or mathematical calculations, per second. That is a thousand million million, or 10 to the 15th power, operations per second. It also has massive data storage capabilities.

Supercomputers are particularly good at the modeling of large systems, such as the climate of the earth—or very intricate ones, such as determining how, out of trillions of possibilities, a chain of amino acids, encoded by our genes, folds itself into the shape that determines its function as a protein.

However, not every problem takes such a form. The Senior Vice President who oversees the key growth units of IBM, including IBM Research worldwide, Dr. John E. Kelly III—who also is a Rensselaer alumnus and trustee—has dubbed the supercomputers of today “brilliant idiots.” They are excellent at performing the calculations they are programmed to do. But, unlike humans, they are not good at learning from experience and adapting to their environments, and they are not adept at finding the single valuable insight within an unruly flood of non-mathematical data.

Cognitive computing—or computing by machines able to make inferences from data, and to teach themselves—add to our capabilities in another way. You may be familiar with the IBM cognitive computing system Watson, which, in 2011, was victorious over the best human champions in Jeopardy! Watson is able to absorb enormous amounts of natural language data—such as scientific papers, kitchen recipes, or blog posts. It can find valuable correlations within that data, and generate hypotheses from it, for human experimentation and exploration. We are very proud that many of the key figures in the development of Watson are Rensselaer alumni—including Dr. Christopher Welty, who was a professor in the Computer Science Department at Vassar before joining IBM, and Google. We were the first university worldwide to receive a Watson computer for research.

Now, our scientists are working to extend cognitive computing to the entire world of open data on the Web, to make these intelligent systems even more nuanced.

On the screen, you can see another example of the work in artificial intelligence being done at Rensselaer. Cogito is a robot imbued with sensing and reasoning ability—whose “mental” capabilities were developed at the Rensselaer Artificial Intelligence & Reasoning Laboratory, which is directed by Professor Selmer Bringsjord, Head of our Cognitive Science Department. Cogito was created to study self-consciousness in machines. Given the classic “mirror test” used to measure self-awareness in animals and babies, Cogito is able to recognize itself in a mirror. If there is a mark on its forehead, Cogito understands that it does not belong there and decides on its own to remove it. Now Professor Bringsjord has moved on to a more sophisticated test of self-awareness. Told that it has been given either a pill that mutes it, or a placebo, a robot is asked which pill it has been given. Initially, it responds, “I don’t know.” Hearing itself, it realizes that it has not gotten the pill that renders it dumb, and answers correctly.

Researchers at Rensselaer, and elsewhere, also are investigating neuromorphic computing, or computing that mimics the architecture and function of the human brain, in order to gain some of the brain’s advantages.

In conventional computation, data is pulled from memory, processed, and then the result is sent back to storage before the next operation is addressed. This shuffling creates bottlenecks, tremendous excess heat, and is extremely expensive in terms of energy usage overall.

The human brain, on the other hand, has a networked architecture of neurons—the cells that transmit impulses—and synapses—the points between cells where signaling occurs—that allows the brain to distribute information processing in an extremely energy-efficient way. It has been estimated that for a conventional supercomputer to simulate the communication occurring at the 100 trillion synapses in the human brain—at the same speed as the brain—the combined power consumption of Los Angeles and New York City would be required. Our brains, on the other hand, currently are powered by the soup, salad, or sandwich we ate for lunch.

Neuromorphic computing also aspires to achieve the resilience of the human brain, which can lose neurons without compromising the entire system; has the ability to learn without being programmed; and has the ability to learn through our senses, as well as through our reason.

Neuromorphic processors that mimic neurons and synapses are much more adept at analyzing sensory data than conventional processors. This includes image processing, to determine, for example, which activity in a crowded airport terminal, transmitted by a camera, is cause for concern.

Our scientists at The Rensselaer IDEA are exploring hybrids among all these types of computing—so that our endeavors can be assisted by a holistic intelligence more like our own.

Rensselaer researchers are improving not merely on machine perception—they also are devising new ways to assist human perception. Sometimes the best way to understand what the data is telling us is to see it, to hear it, or to feel it. At Rensselaer, we are very focused on immersive technologies that enhance our sensory intelligence, including data visualization, haptics, and augmented reality.

We have a magnificent platform for this: Our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC—which is not merely a remarkable place for the performing arts—but also is a locus of cutting-edge research in human-scale immersive technologies. We are in the process of developing, in partnership with IBM, The Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory @EMPAC. Initially, this laboratory will focus on creating Situations Rooms—interactive environments that automatically respond to their occupants by listening to and watching them. A Situations Room will help collaborators working at the same time on different aspects of a larger project to make better decisions. Such a tool would have many applications, such as a cognitive design studio, a cognitive boardroom, a cognitive medical diagnosis room, or a cognitive classroom.

Collectively, these digital tools and technologies are so powerful, that they have applications in almost every field of human endeavor, and an important role to play in answering almost every question.

Allow me to offer a few examples. Over and over, in different parts of the world, in recent years, we have seen the rapid rise of new global security risks in non-state actors—as well as inspiring pro-democracy movements. How can we identify such movements in their infancy? How can we diffuse dangerous networks? How can we recognize when popular opinion is being swayed for positive ends?

Thanks to the digitization of so many communications between and among people, and the treasure trove of opinion, sentiment, gossip, and persuasion available on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr—a data-driven revolution is underway in fields such as sociology and psychology. This revolution is analogous to the transformation of the life sciences with the rise of genomics.

At Rensselaer, we host the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center, or SCNARC. Directed by Dr. Boleslaw Szymanski, our Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, this is a collaboration among the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, IBM, Rensselaer, and a number of other universities. The Center seeks to understand, using the data available on social networks, how ideas and movements form, spread, influence, and create societies. It also examines cultural and linguistic nuance on such networks. This fascinating endeavor includes computer scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, political scientists, and linguists.

For example, Dr. Heng Ji, our Edward P. Hamilton Development Chair in Computer Science, is a theoretical linguist as well as a computer scientist. In her work with the Center, she is automating the recognition of hidden networks that use coded language, in societies in which it is dangerous to express oneself openly.

One of the early discoveries of SCNARC is the significance of commitment—and the fact that when 10% of a population truly is committed to an idea or cause, a tipping point can be reached—and the minority opinion is likely to be adopted rapidly by the majority. I am certain that there are many people in this Vassar audience who have dedicated their lives to societal concerns, or who will dedicate their lives to them. I hope you take courage from this finding that your convictions do have the power to change the world.

At Rensselaer, we also are using advanced digital tools to answer another key question: How can we become much more intelligent stewards of the environment?

With our partners IBM and The Fund for Lake George, we are using the fresh water ecology of Lake George, at the southeastern end of the Adirondack Park here in New York State, to model an answer to that question. We have named the undertaking The Jefferson Project, in honor of Thomas Jefferson, who declared Lake George to be “the most beautiful water [he] ever saw.” We intend to make sure that human encroachment does not cloud this famously clear water.

Lake George is best thought of as a system of systems, which include...

  • weather,
  • hydrology—in other words, runoff and the nutrients, sediments, and contaminants it introduces into the lake;
  • lake circulation; and
  • the food web, including invasive species.

In such a system of systems, easy correlations may not represent causation. To understand and mitigate stresses to the environment, scientific inquiry is required: careful observations over time using advanced technologies, models that help us to integrate the data streams they create and to make predictions, and experiments that allow us to test our hypotheses.

So, with our partners, we are turning Lake George into the “smartest” lake in the world. We have placed advanced sensors throughout the lake, including weather stations, tributary sensors, and vertical profilers that measure a panoply of factors influencing the lake. And we have established a new data visualization laboratory, at our Darrin Fresh Water Institute in Bolton Landing on Lake George, that features advanced computation and graphics systems to help us to integrate that data with high-resolution bathymetric and topographic lake surveys—and to develop a full picture of the systems and interactions that make up Lake George and its watershed.

In our quest really to “see” Lake George, the Rensselaer Office of Research has given seed funding to a project that includes people particularly adept at seeing: namely, visual artists. Professor Kathleen Ruiz, a new media artist whose work encompasses games and simulations, and Professor Kathy High, who produces videos and installations, are part of a project that includes Rensselaer biologists and computer scientists. Together, they are developing new technology, including a novel sensor, to capture, analyze, and model the distribution of plankton in the lake. Plankton are both a foundation of the food web and include invasive species, so they offer essential information about the health of the lake.

Professor Ruiz and Professor High will present the wonders of this research to a large audience by creating an immersive 3-D virtual environment artwork from it, using a team of student artists, sound designers, game developers, and programmers. The artists already have inspired our biologists to look at things differently by asking them “What do plankton look like in three dimensions?” This is quite different from considering these creatures in two dimensions—the way they might look mounted on microscope slides—and a small example of the serendipity that arises when one brings the arts and the humanities into scientific inquiry.

In the end, The Jefferson Project will inform and undergird public policy about watershed issues, fresh water systems, and overall environmental stewardship—where science, technology, ethics, regulation, and policy formulation all come together. This is precisely where and why interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary approaches are critical.

Another key question we are addressing under The New Polytechnic is, how do we best educate young people for this new era of interconnected challenges and great tools of connection?

Helping to transform the academic experience at Rensselaer are teaching tools arising out of Rensselaer research into mixed and immersive realities, multi-player games, web science, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer vision, information technology management, and other fields. These tools allow us to explore exciting new ways of communicating knowledge, and of collaborating.

For example, a multi-player mixed-reality game we call The Mandarin Project helps Rensselaer students to learn the Chinese language in the most effective ways, through gamification, conversation, and cultural immersion in mixed reality environments. With an engaging narrative that spans an academic semester, The Mandarin Project allows our students to use and expand their language skills in virtual environments that include the Beijing airport and a Chinese tea house. We already have found that this approach accelerates student learning. And when our students go abroad, they will have developed, through direct and virtual experiences, cultural nuance that they otherwise would not have. Very soon, we will have students interacting within these scenes with artificially intelligent digital characters that link to the cognitive computing systems I talked about earlier.

Another example of pedagogical innovation at Rensselaer has been developed by Dr. Tarek Abdoun, the Thomas Iovino Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Programs. Professor Abdoun led the physical modeling research team that clarified the failure mechanisms of the New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina, and contributed to better levee designs. Now he and his colleagues are developing a game called Geo Explorer—a mixed reality and mobile game that is the cornerstone of an innovative hybrid course module combining theoretical flood protection system design, the virtual planning and inspection of flood protection systems, actual laboratory testing, and virtual field testing. Geo Explorer is intended to help address one of the great challenges in engineering education: the fact that students are not—and cannot be—out in the field under extreme conditions, experiencing the practical consequences of engineering decisions. With Geo Explorer, however, they can experience those conditions and consequences virtually—and become better engineers for it.

At Rensselaer, we bring a scientific and technological perspective to all we do. But we make sure that that perspective is informed by ethics and societal concerns—and the humanities and social sciences bring these issues to the fore for our students.

To drive home what the true interdisciplinarity is, we have Art_X@Rensselaer—a new initiative designed to expose all of our students to the science in art, and the art in science, so that they can recognize the underlying patterns of thought that are common across the disciplines—and be inspired to embrace creative crossover. Art_X@Rensselaer is not about art appreciation classes. Instead, we are promoting an awareness of beauty and creativity throughout the Rensselaer curriculum, and through the many opportunities we offer our students for collaborative research across art, science, engineering, the social sciences, and management—and through work on projects and productions, such as the immersive plankton experience I mentioned a few moments ago.

Clearly, it is crucial for institutions of higher education, such as Vassar and Rensselaer, to put into place the mechanisms for multi-disciplinary learning and research, such as the Science, Technology, & Society program that is hosting me today.

However, we make an equally important contribution simply by serving as a physical crossroads—where scientists, engineers, artists, and scholars from diverse disciplines, meet, talk, and spark the innovations and discoveries that can improve lives around the world. This both undergirds and validates the residential collegiate model. I would urge every student in the audience today to take full advantage of the delightful intellectual bazaar in which you find yourselves—and to seek out people in majors far removed from your own, just for a conversation.

Before I end today, I would like to consider another thought from Judge Newman, in explaining her own journey from one discipline, into another, where she made an indelible mark. I quote her: “The law seemed to summon the same parts of my mind that had attracted me to the sciences years before.”

I have spoken today about summoning our collective intelligence to address great challenges, as well as about encouraging both students and faculty to develop a more holistic intelligence by learning from people in other disciplines.

Of course, there is no single settled definition of intelligence, any more than there is a full understanding of the remarkable human brain that generates intelligence. However, the brilliant people around us remind us that there are many ways to accomplish great things: that we may summon analytic abilities to define problems and solutions; creativity to imagine new paths; organizational ability to help make a project real; and wisdom to guide us—arising from our experience of life and our sense of goodwill towards the world at large.

While each of us has all of these capabilities in some measure, very few of us have developed all of them in equal measure. It is when we join forces that we truly cancel out our weaknesses and compound our strengths. To solve great problems, we must connect.

I hope that I have convinced you that, with the new tools and technologies we have, what they enable, and with the conjoining of multidisciplinary perspectives they allow—we are educating our students within a modern definition of the liberal arts —The New Polytechnic. The intent is to engender in our students intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view—characteristics they must have if they are to lead in a changing world, indeed, lead in changing the world.

Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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