From Eaton to Roebling to Low:
|"I am convinced
that Amos Eaton's idea of learning by doing is so right, so real, so important,
and never more so than right now."
The Brooklyn Bridge is more than a way to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan. It
is, said David McCullough, one of the finest of American symbols, fashioned by
a true American hero. That hero, Rensselaer alumnus Washington Roebling, was committed
to "creating something of real public value," said McCullough, a winner of the
Pulitzer Prize and author of The Brooklyn Bridge.
McCullough spoke at Rensselaer's Founders Day on Nov. 6, part of the Institute's 175th Anniversary celebration. He was one of a group of scholars of the history of technology and of technological education who took part in the daylong symposium exploring Rensselaer's role in shaping American history. Presentations by Merritt Roe Smith of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stuart Leslie of Johns Hopkins University, Thomas Carroll, executive director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, Institute Dean Thomas Phelan, and Rensselaer historian Carl Westerdahl also highlighted the day.
The Founders Day symposium explored the revolutionary change in
science and technology education begun in 1824 by Amos Eaton and Stephen Van Rensselaer.
In that year, Van Rensselaer and Eaton began their "Magnificent Experiment"--creating
a pioneering technological school in upstate New York that departed radically
from traditional methods in higher education. "It was a year worth reckoning with--not
least of all because it marked the beginning of RPI, one of the great schools
of engineering and science education and application in America," said Smith.
Merritt Roe Smith
Leslie examined the role of science and the university in advancing
regional economic prosperity. He addressed the much-debated question of whether
a phenomenon such as California's Silicon Valley could occur today in New York's
Hudson Valley. Leslie recalled George Low's "Rensselaer 2000" plan, which Leslie
called "a remarkable blueprint to carry RPI to the millennium." Low hoped to mimic
the successful partnership between Stanford University and the Silicon Valley.
"Low may not have been able to accomplish all he had intended for RPI and for
the Capital District," Leslie said, "but that should not obscure how far he did
move RPI and the region in the right direction."
The Founders Day event demonstrated that the contributions of Rensselaer's
founders went well beyond anything they anticipated, even in their most optimistic
hours. "I am convinced that Amos Eaton's idea of learning by doing is so right,
so real, so important, and never more so than right now," said McCullough.
For more on Founders Day and other 175th Anniversary events, visit the Web site at www.rpi.edu/web/175.
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