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A decade of electrifying change has transformed teaching and propelled Rensselaer to national prominence

John Kolb '79By Margaret M. Knight

Photograph by Gary Gold

On May 13, the piercing strains of bagpipes announced the arrival of the Class of 2000 at Rensselaer’s 194th Commencement. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.

These students attended Rensselaer during one of the most dynamic decades in Institute history. When the Class of 1990 returns this month for their 10th Reunion, they will find radical change at every turn. Strategic investment in campus infrastructure has transformed Rensselaer physically at the same time that the university has emerged a national leader in the reform of undergraduate education.

The newest residence hall, Barton Hall, is wired with 15 miles of data cable. The campus is equipped with 8,000 connection ports. From the intimate “studio” classrooms replacing large lecture halls, to the multimillion-dollar Mueller Center, a fitness facility equipped with data ports and a composite digital projection screen, Rensselaer is wired!

The Pittsburgh Building, Walker Laboratory, and the Troy Building have all been gutted and completely rebuilt. Classrooms in Amos Eaton, the Greene Building, the Jonsson Engineering Center, the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center, the Lally Building, the Low Center for Industrial Innovation, the Materials Research Center, and Russell Sage Laboratory have been juiced up to accommodate the very latest educational advances. Students can use software, do interactive exercises, take online quizzes, and collaborate with team members from their room, in the Union...virtually anywhere on campus.

Since 1996, Yahoo! Internet Life magazine has ranked the nation’s “most wired” universities. Rensselaer is one of only a handful of schools that have placed in the top 10 each year of the survey. The survey places importance on how technology is used to benefit the lives of students. It does not simply reward the amount of circuitry and computer terminals in classrooms and dormitories.

All that is just the external manifestation of a much deeper change. It’s not the rooms and buildings—although they are truly impressive in their own right—it’s what happens in them that’s so remarkable.

Nobody Does It Better

What began as an experiment to introduce computers into the study of calculus in 1988 quickly evolved into a focused Institutewide initiative called interactive learning.

With remarkable speed, Rensselaer turned much of its curriculum upside down—shifting the emphasis from what teachers teach to what students learn. Investment in structural and administrative changes allowed the new pedagogy to flourish and made the Institute a model for other universities looking to improve the student learning experience.

Major support for these initiatives has come (in money and equipment) from a wide array of individuals, corporations, foundations, and government entities, including the National Science Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, IBM, the GTE Foundation, Intel, AT&T, Boeing, GM, GE, Hewlett-Packard, OrCAD, and others.

“This is not just a couple of people doing a neat thing,” says Carol A. Twigg, an international authority on the use of information technology to improve teaching and contain rising costs in higher education. “This is far more profound than that. Innovation permeates the academic culture at Rensselaer.”

Twigg is the founding director of the Center for Academic Transformation, which she established last year at Rensselaer with an $8.8 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. In addition to administering a program to fund efforts to enhance learning and reduce costs at the nation’s colleges and universities, the new center will “serve as a source of expertise and support to those who wish to transform academic practice,” Twigg says.

“I could have taken this program anywhere in the country. I chose Rensselaer because I believe it is in the lead in a whole series of academic issues. Rensselaer is making deep, fundamental changes in the way it thinks about instruction, changes that have a profound impact on student learning,” Twigg says. “What RPI has done, probably more than any other school, is institutionalize innovation.”

Institutionalizing Innovation

“In my mind, the greatest change at Rensselaer in the last decade has been our heightened interest in understanding how students learn versus concentrating on the amount of information we transfer to them,” says Gary Gabriele, vice provost for administration and dean of undergraduate education.

Small groups of Rensselaer faculty began responding to a growing national awareness that students—particularly those in engineering, technology, and the sciences—were not always learning what they needed to know.

“We started to see a much greater emphasis on project-oriented work and open-ended problem solving,” Gabriele recalls. “That’s also when the interactive studio model, introduced first into physics classes by Professor Jack Wilson [who was then director of the Anderson Center for Innovation in Undergraduate Education], began to find its way into the culture.”

The change started with the faculty but because it was encouraged and nurtured by administrators who were convinced of its value, it took hold. “To me that’s the recipe: You’ve got to create a total environment that encourages innovation and risk taking,” Gabriele says.

Creative faculty backed by supportive administrators make a powerful combination. Innovation has been followed by implementation. Today, close to half of all undergraduate courses are taught with new interactive methods. And learning is spilling out of the classroom as Web-based instructional tools and online materials allow students with required laptop computers to work seamlessly anywhere, anytime.

“We didn’t do things on a small scale,” Gabriele says. “Large classes with enrollments of 300, 400, even 500 students are now routinely taught in the studio mode at Rensselaer.”

Studio courses in the sciences, for example, are typically divided into sections of about 40 to 50 students each. The old structure— big lecture, smaller recitation, and long, once-a-week lab—has been replaced by two two-hour sessions each week. Short lectures, lively class discussion, team-centered problem solving, and hands-on lab experiments are an integral part of each class period. Interaction between student and teacher is greatly intensified.

Changes in the infrastructure—classroom configuration, for example—have been an integral part of the institutional commitment to change.

“You quickly realize how much a particular mode of teaching is ingrained in the infrastructure,” Gabriele points out. An amphitheater with rows and rows of desks facing in one direction is perfect for a traditional lecture but not at all conducive to collaborative project work by teams of students. “It becomes a systems-wide problem,” he says. “You come to realize that it’s going to take a major effort to move forward.”

Strategic Risk Taking

Rensselaer was up to the challenge. In 1990 the President and Provost’s Panel on Strategic Initiatives (PSI) issued its plan for the future. Interactive learning was the first priority.

“We started to act on the PSI plan immediately,” says John Kolb ’79, dean of computing and information services. “That’s when Bill Jennings ’66 [now vice provost for professional and distance education] put in the UNIX workstations. We started to really ramp up computer calculus and studio physics and the use of computer applications like Maple and ProEngineer and MatLab. The much more powerful platform allowed faculty to explore using new tools in their pedagogy.”

Interactive learning includes many varied innovations—some involving advanced technologies, others relying on them very little or not at all. “I think one of the most robust things about interactive learning is that, right from the beginning, we have all had different definitions of what it is,” says Kolb. “But the key has always been engaging students in their own learning.”

“One of the more interesting rooms is the LITEC [Laboratory Introduction to Embedded Control] Studio,” Kolb says. This space in the Jonsson Engineering Center had been a corridor with a small lab on either side. “They blew away the corridor and combined it with the two labs. It’s now a big room with a column right in the middle, which means that the instructor can’t be seen from all locations. I really like that column,” Kolb says. “It forces the instructor to move around and take a lively, interactive approach. So it’s usually a very active, busy room.”

Another of Kolb’s personal favorites: labs that don’t “feel” like labs. In the Circuits Studio, for example, you’ll find students actually designing, building, and testing their own circuits with the help of sophisticated technology. And, because the room has also been wired for audio, they’ll be playing a music CD in the background. “It’s a very pleasant, creative environment,” Kolb says, “very unlike the sterile labs I used as a student here. It is a real credit to our faculty that they have created a place designed to be inviting and to put the student in the driver’s seat.”

Who’s in Charge Here?

“The most important aspect of studio instruction is shifting the learning into the classroom,” says John Brunski, professor of biomedical engineering and one of the first faculty members to develop an interactive course for engineering students.

Brunski explains: “In the traditional lecture model, you (the instructor) would talk and write some notes on an overhead projector, periodically stopping to ask if there were any questions. There never were any. Then perhaps you’d work a sample problem. “

“The key is you would talk and you would work the problem. The students were just sitting there copying everything down. It wasn’t until they were back in the dorm trying to do their homework that they realized they were totally lost.”

Emily Rossier ’00 was in one of Brunski’s studio sections of Introduction to Engineering Analysis (IEA). “Studio classes played to my learning style,” she says. “They may not be best for everyone, but I enjoyed them a lot because we worked in groups, we took turns doing problems in front of the class, and we made sure everyone understood before we moved on.”

Brunski loves working in the studio format, although he laughs when he recalls some early difficulties with the method.

“When I started doing this, I was extremely uncomfortable, first, because it’s so different from what I knew, and second, because you have to give up control of the material. You have no idea how long it’s going to take for the class to finish an exercise, or what questions are going to come up. You realize that you’re not going to get through everything you planned. Then,” he smiles, “you suddenly get it: What’s the point of covering a lot of material if the students don’t understand? It begins to dawn on you—this is what they mean by ‘learner-driven instruction.’ ”

Almost all faculty who have been using interactive techniques for several years say they are now able to cover as much as they did in the lecture format and their students are performing at least as well. They’re also voting with their feet. Attendance in studio classes has improved to an unprecedented 90 percent compared to national figures as low as 50 percent for large lecture courses.

Mobilized to Learn

Studio classes are not just taught differently. They approach a subject with fresh eyes and supporting materials tailored specifically to new learning environments.

For her first three semesters at Rensselaer, Rossier was part of a pilot program using laptop computers. Several of her courses, including Brunski’s IEA and Professor Joe Ecker’s Studio Calculus, incorporated the portable devices in class and homework assignments. More than the machines themselves, the interactive environment and outstanding supporting materials like Ecker’s studio calculus workbook made the program a standout success for her. So, when Rensselaer decided to expand laptop computing, Rossier agreed to head up the student subcommittee of the team of campus leaders working to implement the program.

In April 1999 Rensselaer launched Mobile Computing @ Rensselaer—a new initiative that moved laptop computing into the mainstream of instruction. Entering freshmen are now required to equip themselves with a suitable laptop. Rensselaer worked with IBM as a partner and offered a top-of-the-line IBM notebook computer loaded with appropriate software that was selected by 1,296 of an entering class of 1,323.

“I had had a very positive experience with the pilot program and I wanted to make sure we did the best job possible putting the requirement into place,” Rossier says. Now, at the end of its first year, she is convinced it was a good idea. “With laptops, students can be learning, studying, and working in groups almost anywhere on campus. And I think it also makes sense to devote the public computer labs to more specialized applications.”

For Brunski, incorporating laptops into the curriculum makes perfect sense. “When students have notebook computers, it greatly expands what we as faculty can do to engage them actively in the learning process. Notebook computers and studios can transform a class into something more like a sports practice where students can practice mastering new knowledge while being ‘coached’ on basic skills by the professor.”

Modern students must be facile with computers, he says, and in particular with how computing applies to their field. Introduction to Engineering Analysis was designed specifically to integrate the study of mechanics with applicable elements of mathematics and computing. (Visit the class online:

Brunski is a principal player in an NSF-funded program called Project Links, a cooperative effort by mathematicians, engineers, and scientists to develop educational materials that link math topics with applications in engineering and science. The Web-based learning modules developed by the Rensselaer team are designed to show how mathematics works in the real world.

Brunski’s contribution has been a series of computer-based exercises using a mountain bike to illustrate essentially every concept that comes up in Introduction to Engineering Analysis. Exercises like “Mountain Biking on Mars” and “Frame Design and Analysis” illustrate how math works for engineers, and, just as important, give students a very real appreciation of what an engineering model is and how you create and work with models. And it’s fun! (See http://links.math.rpi. edu/devmodules/bicycle.)

Approximately 200 Rensselaer courses a year utilize WebCT (“WebCourseTools”), a Web-based learning management system that provides online communication tools and Web access to course materials. According to Rensselaer Instructional Multimedia Consultant Don Bell, most professors are using it to augment existing classroom course material. Two popular WebCT functions are the Bulletin Board conferencing tool, which enables pre- or post-class asynchronous discussion of course materials, and the WebCT Quiz tool. Quizzes can be written by the professor and delivered online on a predetermined day. Comprehensive statistics are available for quiz and question performance. Once marked, the grade assigned is automatically entered into the WebCT grade database and, along with comments, made available to the student.

Innovative computer-based learning materials designed for the MTV generation are being developed all over campus in places like the Rensselaer Academy of Electronic Media where highly creative visualization software is enabling students to learn scientific and engineering principles in totally new ways.

What’s Next?

Ten years ago, many students relied on public terminals for all their computing needs. Today’s high-tech students have—on average— a laptop, a PC, even a server, all wired in their room. To accommodate them, Rensselaer has had to beef up service to residence halls, increasing power by 50 percent. Each room now has Ethernet, TV cable, and telephone connections, at least three circuits, and eight separate outlets.

Built to meet the needs of the next generation of students, Rensselaer’s latest residence, Barton Hall on Sage Avenue, is designed to extend the Institute’s collaborative learning environment. The lounge is fully loaded for laptop, data, and wireless communication, and each floor has three fully wired student team conference rooms. A “work center” in the middle of each level is equipped with fax, copy machine, and phone.

When the Rensselaer Union reopens this fall after a $9.3 million renovation, its technology and telecommunications infrastructure will rival that of any school in the country. The huge atrium of the student lounge will have a state-of-the-art antenna network to accommodate wireless computing and let students move freely about the upper two levels without breaking Internet connection.

Oliver Holmes, director of planning and engineering at Rensselaer, expects to see outdoor laptop classes in five years, but “at the rate technology is advancing, about all we can do is stay a half step ahead in terms of facilities,” he says.

At Rensselaer, faculty, administrators, and students have been doing this so long that it no longer seems new. But when you consider that just 10 years ago the Internet was in its infancy and the Web didn’t exist, you see how fast all this has happened. In anticipation of the laptop requirement, Rensselaer upgraded 24 classrooms in one summer, and 13 more will be laptop-ready this fall!

And institutional commitment is unswerving. The new Rensselaer Plan, adopted by the Board of Trustees at its May meeting, vows to keep the innovations coming.

Still, there is controversy attached to all the changes. And faculty like John Brunski who have given their all to bring new life to teaching sometimes wonder if anyone cares or grasps the greater implications of these innovations. Recognition will come, Carol Twigg believes. But change takes hold slowly.

“Because RPI is the forerunner, a lot of people don’t sufficiently understand or appreciate what it is doing. It’s lonely on the front end,” Twigg says. “But it won’t be long before people will say, ‘Oh! Now I see what Rensselaer was doing!’ ”


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