THE 21ST CENTURY STUDENT
RENSSELAER CATERS TO A NEW BREED OF INCOMING FRESHMAN
Edward Gorcenski is a Rensselaer freshman studying for a dual major in aeronautical and mechanical engineering. He's on the intramural hockey team and he is a member of the student chapter of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). In his spare timejust for funthe 18-year-old collaborates with a few of his friends on a plan to launch an online entertainment business that would incorporate a virtual computer gaming league.
"It's just a hobbyit's fun. I can program computers, and I like games, and I want to provide a service that people will like," says the Connecticut native who plans to use his higher education to build airplanes for a living.
For Gorcenski and other techno-savvy students just entering college in the 21st century, high-speed Internet access, portable laptops, and Palm Pilots assist in accomplishing everything from enhancing study habits, to running a business, to coordinating extracurricular clubs and activities via student-run Web pages, says Eddie Ade Knowles, interim vice president for student life.
"For these students, who have grown up in the computer age, technology adds not just convenience but a whole new way of living and learning on campus," says Knowles, who has observed many differences in the generations of students he has seen come and go in his nearly 24 years at Rensselaer.
"Major changes have occurred in student life in today's world," says Rick Hartt '70, director of the Rensselaer Union. "Thirty years ago, the campus experience was divided more or less into two sections. One half was academic, which was centered in the classroom and, for the most part, was an individual experience. The other half was social, which focused on the fraternities, and was characterized by an active schedule of parties and dances."
Today, in contrast, the two worldssocial and academicdo not divide as neatly. The Internet and other technological tools provide students with a new and unique platformone that offers easier access to where they need to be on an academic level while simultaneously connecting them with their peers, their families, and the world at large.
"There doesn't seem to be the artificial distinction between work and play with these students. They view all their activities in a very holistic way and expect the computer to just be a tool like a phone was a generation ago," says Teresa Duffy, dean of enrollment management.
Technological advances have allowed students to easily cross time and physical barriers, making time management more effective, but even more of a priority, Duffy adds. In essence, students expect to work, play, and ultimately live their lives anytime and just about anywhere they want.
"The students of today want anytime, anywhere, anyway access to what they need and when they want it," Duffy says. "Not a day goes by that a prospective student doesn't ask questions like: Can I be online while I exercise? Can I still maintain my Web-based business while I'm a student at Rensselaer? Can a group get together virtually and work on projects while in different places?' "
CATERING TO THE NEEDS OF TODAY'S STUDENT
Rensselaer recently invested more than $23 million in high-tech infrastructure, which includes major building renovations and new facilities, to ensure that it is sufficiently addressing the needs of next-generation students. A new high-tech residence hall, a state-of-the-art fitness center, the extensively renovated Union, and electronically equipped classrooms that accommodate the school's success in interactive learning are some of the many changes that greeted freshmen and returning students in the 2000-2001 academic year. All total, the campus is equipped with 8,000 connection ports.
"It's great. Every day I find something new. I walk down a hall and I see network jacks, laptop ports. I even find printers around, and you can print to anywhere on campus," says 19-year-old Christopher Gray '04, a double major in electrical and mechanical engineering.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
But Barton Hall, the first new residence hall since 1977, offers more than technological luxuries. It provides a home away from home, according to Bruce Kunkel '71, major projects construction manager who oversaw the design and building process.
Barton's contemporary brick design reflects the Georgian character of the main campus and conveys a cozy residential atmosphere. The courtyard's open, inviting entrance, for instance, contradicts the drab dorm houses of the 1950s, Kunkel says.
Inside, soft furnishings offer a more relaxed setting in each of the 13 private meeting rooms, and a fourth-floor lounge accommodates more informal gatherings for a community-like setting. "The whole idea was to achieve a home-like atmosphere," Kunkel says.
UNDERSTANDING WHAT STUDENTS WANTED
"It's a wonderful experience to be here. With the conference rooms and laptop ports, there are study groups all over the place," Richardson says. "You see students writing equations on the eraser boards and studying on their laptops in the conference rooms. And then you have the large lounge, where many students relax with their friends. So, Barton provides a great balance for both work and leisure time."
To understand what students wanted in a residence hall, the architect for interior design, Gregory Seleman '72, and Director of Residence Life Peter Snyder conducted a survey during a January 1999 meeting of about 70 students in the Union. Placing red, yellow, and blue markers on a target board, the students voted on what was most important to them (red stood for high priority while blue indicated amenities that students could live without). Their overall top priority was to have a conference lounge. Parking and having a thermostat in each suite were next on the priority list. All three wishes were accommodated.
"The conference lounge and the other 13 meeting rooms are something that students asked for," Kunkel says. "They wanted a convenient place to conduct their team projects and do their homework. They could go to the Union or the library, but they also wanted a place to do their homework at home."
Other residence halls also have been improved. Director of Planning and Engineering Oliver Holmes and his colleagues found that on average Rensselaer students have a laptop, a PC, even a server, all wired in their rooms. To accommodate technological demand, Holmes' design teams juiced up the power to each dorm room by 50 percent. Each room also has Ethernet, TV cable, and telephone connections.
"We're pretty wired," says Gorcenski. One room of the two-room suite he and his two roommates share in the Burdett Avenue Residence Hall is set up with all their beds and dressers, while the other has been turned into a high-tech entertainment center. "In addition to our computers, we have a television, VCR, laser disc player, CD player, and surround sound stereo receiver set up, and one of my roommates has a DVD player built into his computer. We also have a networked printer that we share with some of our neighbors, thus eliminating the trouble of trekking across campus in the cold, dark night to print out a paper," Gorcenski adds.
More than 75 percent of the undergraduate student population participates in one or more athletic programs, Hartt says. The university offers 23 varsity programs, including Division 1 Men's Ice Hockey, 25 club sports, and more than 20 intramural programs. Last year, about 570 participated in varsity sports and thousands more played club sports and intramural athletics.
Couple that with the increasing importance placed in recent years on personal fitness for a well-balanced student lifestyle and it's not surprising that from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on most given days Rensselaer's new state-of-the-art fitness center buzzes with those pumping iron and shaping up in the aerobic and weight rooms.
"It adds a whole new dimension to student life that we didn't have access to before," Richardson says. "I think that being physically fit makes up a large part of a student's well-being, and the Mueller Center fosters that."
The Mueller Center, named in recognition of the $3.1 million gift of Rensselaer Trustee Nancy Mueller to the university's unrestricted endowment, is managed by students through the Rensselaer Union. Although the Armory and '87 Gym provide workout facilities for students, faculty, and staff, the university recognized a need for a bigger and better facility several years ago as more teams and individuals competed for space.
The 32,000-square-foot Mueller Center houses more than 40 pieces of aerobic exercise equipment, including eight treadmills and 11 elliptical cross-training machines as well as rowers, stationary bikes, steppers, and treadmills.
The light-filled, glass-wall enclosed facility also features three multipurpose rooms, which are booked to capacity with aerobics, kick boxing, yoga, and other classes; a 5,500-square-foot weight-training room with separate areas for athletic teams and individual lifters; nine 32-inch hanging TV monitors; stereo sound systems in each room; and a wellness classroom for classes in health-related subjects, such as smoking cessation and nutrition.
In the floor next to the elliptical trainers, the treadmills, and the ergonomic rowing machines are tiny data ports. It's not anticipated that students will bring their laptops when they want to take a break from their studies to work out. But they might virtually train with a partner across the country. In addition, the fitness center's lobby includes a recessed wall that houses a giant video screen walla projection screen capable of broadcasting six different digital videos or one huge composite video. Digital art shows from Rensselaer's Electronic Media, Art, and Communications (EMAC) and iEAR (Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer) programs can be broadcast. Students might stop at the video wall to watch a welcome video or cable TV shows.
As the center of student life on campus, the Union is home to more than 120 student clubs and government. It also houses the Archer Center for Student Leadership Development, the student newspaper (The Polytechnic), the campus bookstore, Mother's Wine Emporium, the McNeil Room, and the Union administration offices.
One of the big improvements resulting from the Union's $9.3 million renovations, completed this fall, is wireless computing. The building's huge atrium has a state-of-the-art antenna network. Students have only to relinquish their student IDs to get a special PC-MCIA (known as the "little black box") that they plug into their laptop to make it wireless. They can eat lunch while they check online homework assignments, e-mail, or even virtually attend a class. They may move freely anywhere in the upper two floors without ever breaking their Internet connection.
To become a modern center of student life, the Union underwent sweeping renovations that began with the revitalization of the McNeil Room level. New spaces also were added for student organizations, meeting areas, and administration offices on the second floor, and lighting was installed to create a more inviting environment. Mother's Wine Emporium, enlarged to about three times its former size, is now used as extra program space to add flexibility for student activities, such as dances and concerts.
"I am just thrilled to see the improvements in sports, residence, and union facilities," says David Haviland '64, vice president for institute advancement. "Over the years, Rensselaer's hallmark has been its ability to provide its students with both the skills and the perspectives to succeed. The new facilities will not only improve the quality of their lives as students, but also give them more tools to succeed as alums."
As an alumnus, professor and dean of architecture, vice president of student life, and now vice president of institute advancement in his ongoing 35 years of service at Rensselaer, Haviland knows firsthand the importance of student life outside the classroom.
"First-year experience is about building community, and the lives of our students are defined by all the spaces they use," Haviland says. "Looking back on my own undergraduate years, I learned half of what I needed to know in my architecture courses and projects. The other half I learned in the '87 Gym, in the student union, and at my fraternity house."
CREATING THE SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY AT RENSSELAER
Five years ago, there were about 80 active clubs at the university. Now there are more than 120, ranging from the Symphony Orchestra and the Science Fiction Association to the highly popular Ballroom Dance Club with more than 200 members. There are nearly 20 multicultural associations for ethnic groups, ranging from African-Caribbean and Vietnamese to Latino and French.
Greek life also thrives at Rensselaer. About 30 percent of the student populationor approximately 1,250 of the university's more than 4,300 studentsare members of fraternities or sororities.
Three decades ago, fraternities were the "engines" that drove the social life of the school. Today, fraternities and sororities maintain a key role, but they are now joined by international student organizations and other clubs run by students through the Rensselaer Union.
"Greek life provides a rewarding experience for students. Fraternities and sorority groups allow those members to develop leadership skills, become more involved in the community, and develop life-long bonds," says Interim Vice President Knowles. "Rensselaer has had a history of community-oriented Greek life, and most have a recognized charity they're affiliated with. We have higher retention rates and the quality of life for these students is better because of our fraternities and sororities."
A thriving high-quality student life also can be seen in increased participation in organizations that focus on self-development, such as martial arts, technology-based clubs, and sports clubs. That desire to hone self-development means more students are turning toward programs that offer leadership skills, the type of programs offered by the Archer Center for Student Leadership Development, Hartt says.
As director of the Rensselaer Union for 18 years, Hartt mentors student leaders in their role as managers of the Union's resources. Current Archer Center Director Linda McCloskey and Hartt were instrumental in launching the Archer Center, established in 1990. The center provides programs to students at all levels to enhance their leadership skills in communication, teamwork, multiculturalism, values, ethics, and self-awareness.
One of the Archer Center's most popular programs is the Slice of Leadership Program. During the workshops, students eat pizza and learn about teamwork, assertiveness training, conflict management, and other leadership skills.
"The way many of the clubs are set up is that most of the time you're using stuff you're learning in school and, because it's a club, you're doing it because you want to, not because you have to," says Gray. "The clubs allow you to develop a lot more people skills. More stuff gets accomplished with more people and the experience is enhancedit's more fun."
Gray says that, although he assumed he would bring a computer and probably a laptop to no matter what university he chose to attend, how wired a school is would not be an ultimate factor in his decision. For him, technology doesn't replace the student-run clubs, campus activities, and other pastimes that allow students to embrace a real community spirit.
Gray, who has planned on being an electrical engineer since 6th grade, was more focused on finding a balance between an excellent academic program and a good dose of student involvement when he set out to find the right college for him.
"I wanted everythinga good social life and good classesand I found that here," he says. "A social life is just as important as the educational part. You could learn anything and everything and not share it with a single personwhat good would that do?"
Still, Gray realized early on in the admissions process that Internet access and other technological advances enhance many components of a fulfilling campus experience. While looking into what Rensselaer had to offer, he asked several questions relating to the information technology atmosphere, including whether the university had a campuswide network system, which makes the hookup to e-mail access and the Internet much quicker and easier. He also was impressed with the laptop requirement and the fact that he can "hook up" in almost all his classes.
"It's convenient," Gray adds. "If you use the technology available to you properly, it gives you more time, and if you manage your time properly, there are that many more things you can do in a day that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do."