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Science, Technology, Arts at Rensselaer (STAR Program)

“It Is Never Too Early To Start Thinking About Changing the World”

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

EMPAC Theater
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Friday, October 25, 2013

Welcome, everyone. I hope that college life is treating you well thus far.

We are delighted to have you with us from across the country. An incredible 25 states are represented in this room.

At Rensselaer, we want very much to connect with talented young women and under-represented minorities, who have the potential to study science, engineering, or the digital arts here—as well as architecture, business, and the humanities with a scientific or technological bent.

In fact, there are three significant reasons we feel your being at Rensselaer is important.

Before I get to those reasons, however, I want to ask whether anyone has told you our motto yet.

It is, “Why not change the world?” That is a challenge to our students, but also a statement of faith that they can change the world.

You will notice that I said “statement of faith,” not “a leap of faith,” since Rensselaer students do change the world, regularly. Let me offer you just one among many examples:

Think of the last time you opened a package containing something fragile. There was probably plastic foam, or “styrofoam,” protecting the object. Plastic foam works, but it is made from petroleum, contains potentially toxic materials, is difficult to recycle, and persists in the environment long after it is discarded.

A few years ago, two Rensselaer graduates, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre founded a company called Ecovative Design to solve this problem. Ecovative uses mushrooms and agricultural waste to grow an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic foam packaging, and it is really catching on. Now Eben and Gavin are working on another mushroom-based product: insulation for houses. And they developed the idea here, in our Inventor’s Studio class.

When we say, “Why not change the world?”, we mean it. So your being here is important in a cosmic sense. Your academic achievements suggest that you, too, have got what it takes to change the world. And we want to make sure you begin to think about improving lives and protecting the planet without delay.

The second reason your visit to Rensselaer really matters is slightly smaller, but still expansive: You are essential to the economic competitiveness of the United States.

Given the demands of our high-tech economy—and strong projected job growth in science and engineering fields—we are not educating enough scientists and engineers in the United States. In China, for example, 31% of all first university degrees are in engineering. In the United States, the equivalent figure is 4%. In the meantime, the scientists and engineers of my generation are beginning to retire, and we simply do not have enough young people in the pipeline to take their place.

I call this “The Quiet Crisis,” and you are part of the solution. On a national level, we must inspire more women and minorities, who today are not well represented in many science and engineering disciplines, to study these fields. We need to do better by brilliant young men and women like you. And if you attend Rensselaer, we will do everything possible to support you on the way to a scientific or technological career.

The third reason your presence here is important? It may very well change your life. If you apply and are accepted here, you will find that a Rensselaer education is transformative.

Rensselaer is nearly 200 years old, the oldest technological research university in the United States. When Rensselaer was founded in 1824, the common way that teaching and learning was done was for students to sit in their seats and to listen passively to lectures by their professors. Rensselaer was radically different. Our founders believed that students needed to get out into the field to collect data, to experiment, and then to demonstrate what they had learned by preparing their own lectures for their professors and peers.

We continue to lead the way in active learning. Today, all of our undergraduates have an opportunity to do research and independent study. We also encourage all Rensselaer juniors to seek out a transformative experience, such as study abroad, an internship, or a co-op position that integrates classroom work with a professional position.

If you become a student here, you also can expect the remarkable platforms we have created at Rensselaer—including EMPAC, the Experimental Media And Performing Arts Center that surrounds us—to be part of your education.

Among these platforms is one of the world’s most powerful university-based supercomputers. Rensselaer is very unusual in allowing large numbers of undergraduates to learn, to discover, and to innovate on such a machine. But that is the nature of a Rensselaer education. We are hands on, minds on all the way.

In addition, informing the way we teach are the many fields in which Rensselaer is extremely strong in research. These fields include high-performance computing, game design, web science, artificial intelligence, visualization, and immersive technologies.

For example, we are using online learning to enhance the Rensselaer experience, beginning with a new online calculus course that will serve as a virtual bridge to Rensselaer for the group of incoming freshmen to which you may belong.

We also have a course called the Mandarin Project that uses a game with a sustained storyline to teach the Chinese language and culture. The students are characters in this game. We soon will be moving the class into our Emergent Reality Laboratory, an immersive environment that allows augmented and virtual reality to be part of the Mandarin Project narrative. And eventually, the Mandarin Project also will include synthetic characters, arising out of Rensselaer research in artificial intelligence, that will interact with the students.

The Mandarin Project is not just a course. It is an experience.

Of course, as innovative as our teaching methods are, we are well aware that education is not all about coursework. The interactions our students have with each other, with faculty and administrators, and with the community around them are an important part of the university experience. Our Clustered, Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS, is designed to foster these connections for all students.

CLASS will support you and help you to grow on every front. CLASS has six core themes: personal development, professional development, cultural development, leadership development, community, and “communiversity”—or being a good neighbor to the City of Troy.

CLASS begins with our award-winning First Year Experience, which eases freshmen into the demands and joys of campus life. Since we understand the significance of a home away from home, CLASS encourages a sense of belonging through small residential communities—supported by residential deans.

And to encourage an even greater sense of affinity, we allow our students to build their own living and learning cohorts based on the CLASS core themes—or particular global challenges such as environmental stewardship. For example, our Leadership Houses allow students to participate in a truly exciting ongoing discourse about governance, management, courage, and inspiration.

CLASS is designed to develop those personal qualities most likely to lead to wonderful careers and full lives: intellectual agility, multi-cultural sophistication, and a global view.

In sum, in our academics and in student life alike, we want to empower our students to change the world.

And now, I’d like to answer any questions you might have…and maybe ask you a few as well….

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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