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Gala 2005: "Opening New Doors, Inspiring Young Minds"

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

Children's Museum of Science and Technology
Troy, New York

Thursday, June 16, 2005

There are some innovations which are so excellent that they endure — thriving over time — improving with age. The Children's Museum of Science and Technology is one of these.

The very idea of a museum just for children was innovative in 1954 when it was conceived. And, the concept of hands-on exhibits, which children could touch and handle, was even controversial: children would actually clamber in and out of a Native American dugout canoe! At the time, this was unimaginable.

The innovation has not suffered from its 51-year journey. Over its lifetime, the museum has been sheltered in a small basement, in a Victorian home, in a vacant firehouse, in an old chemical laboratory, and, now, in the Rensselaer Technology Park, in specially designed quarters shaped by Woodward Connor Gillies & Seleman Architects, and Amy Pressman of Pressman Design Studio.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word, innovation, as ". . . the alteration of what is established, by the introduction of new elements or forms . . ." The Children's Museum of Science and Technology proves its status as an innovation, as it adapts to change and to new elements.

Tonight, at Gala 2005: "Opening New Doors, Inspiring Young Minds," we celebrate this continuing propensity for innovation — as well as a new mission, a new name, and a new site.

I have said, on prior occasions, that the road to Rensselaer runs through the Children's Museum of Science and Technology. Even more importantly, this road is the road to discovery, to higher education, to life-long learning, and, especially, to innovation. There could be no more important mission. The Capital Region, indeed, is fortunate to have this resource available to children — now, and for generations to come.

The mission is critical because we are at a point in history when we must turn to innovation to resolve the overarching challenge of the 21st century — this is the challenge of energy security.

The industrialized world was built on plentiful and inexpensive energy. As global trends enable nations to develop and to begin resolving embedded challenges, such as safe drinking water, sanitation, adequate food production, education, health care, and opportunities for work, the demand for energy is burgeoning exponentially.

Therefore, on a global scale, the availability of abundant, inexpensive energy is directly related to security — to global security and, therefore, to national security.

The reality is that we cannot drill our way to energy security. We must innovate our way to energy security — we must innovate new technologies which discover new fossil energy sources, which conserve energy, which protect the environment, and which provide sustainable multiple sources of energy.

We will not continue to have the capacity for the kind of innovation we need, unless and until we have cohorts of young people ready to step into the laboratories and design studios, replacing the scientists who now are beginning to retire in great numbers.

Today's scientists and engineers, whose imaginations were captured, as children, by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, are beginning to retire. The ready flow of talented international scientists and students to our laboratories, design studios, and campuses is slowing, as other nations invest in their own education and research enterprise, and as globalization offers employment at home, or elsewhere. Furthermore, enrollment of American students in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering has declined over the past decade.

The net is, overall, that the American innovation enterprise, which has fueled our economic growth, our standard of living, and our national security, may soon lack the critical mass of scientists and engineers to create the next innovations upon which the new industries will be built.

This is an urgent situation, which I have been calling the "The Quiet Crisis," and it underscores our need for cohorts of young people whose curiosity has been whetted, whose imaginations have been sparked, whose eagerness for science and mathematics has been awakened, and who are ready to be nurtured along the science and engineering pipeline.

This is why the Children's Museum of Science and Technology, and its counterparts elsewhere, are so important to our future.

Also important to the future is the individual whom we are gathered here to honor this evening.

  • An individual who has been instrumental in shepherding the Children's Museum of Science and Technology through its new development phase.
  • An individual whose contributions to the Capital Region have been both enormous and long term. These contributions include improvement of the Albany International Airport, which was pivotal in luring Southwest Airlines.
  • An individual who chaired the Strategic Initiatives Committee of the Center for Economic Growth, which is responsible for the Rensselaer Rail Station, the revitalized Albany waterfront, the Watervliet Armory, among other key enterprises.
  • An individual who gives generously of his time and attention, serving on numerous boards including the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), Siena College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

This individual is, of course, John Nigro:

  • John Nigro, who did not hesitate when asked to help steer a future direction for the Children's Museum of Science and Technology;
  • John Nigro, who assumed a vigorous leadership role;
  • John Nigro, who identified and headed a committed advisory group of community leaders through the process, setting the Children's Museum on a sure path to a sustained future;
  • John Nigro, who is an exceptional human being.

On behalf of the Children's Museum, and on behalf of the brilliant scientists of the future who are children, today, and whose imagination, creativity, inspiration, ingenuity, inventiveness, and resourcefulness are fostered here — please join me in thanking John Nigro.

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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