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Education for Innovational Leadership

EMPAC provides limitless opportunities to inspire future leaders

By John Kolb ’79

EMPAC will foster innovation at the nexus of the
arts, sciences, and technology.
The Brooklyn Bridge. The Apollo spacecraft program. The Ferris wheel. E-mail. Guided always by our motto of “knowledge and thoroughness,” Rensselaer has a long history of educating the people whose innovations revolutionize the world.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, when Rensselaer was helping to define modern technological education, “knowledge and thoroughness” generally meant flooding students with as much information as possible, and hoping they’d retain most of it.

Today, as the world is seeking global leaders with the ability and creativity to solve unprecedented problems, imparting “knowledge and thoroughness” requires a new approach to education, one that encompasses critical thinking, technical knowledge, interdisciplinary inquiry, technological innovation, and experiential learning.

Through a firm commitment to fostering creativity and inventiveness, multidisciplinary collaboration, and the communication skills necessary to express vision, Rensselaer is once again defining what a technological education should be. A clear illustration of that point is the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), which will open in October.

Both a world-class performing arts venue and a state-of-the-art platform for research, EMPAC will bring together artists and scientists, engineers and designers under one roof, forging an intellectual community that has never before existed. 

An incubator for innovation, EMPAC will create unprecedented opportunities for artists and scientists to encounter and to inspire each other in seemingly limitless ways.

An acoustics researcher attending a musical performance in the concert hall in which differing sounds are projected from the stage, from the balcony, and from a device hanging above the audience might suddenly be inspired to consider the human auditory system in a new way, and to collaborate with the musicians to research a new method to aid the hearing impaired.

Likewise, an artist passing by a studio in which a scientist is using motion capture technology for perception research might be inspired to develop an experimental dance piece with the researcher using the technology to explore how interactivity between the virtual and real worlds might elicit different audience response.

At EMPAC art, science, and technology will encounter, challenge, and change each other, spurring exploration and discovery.

This focus on interdisciplinary collaboration, design, and creativity has always been an educational keystone in Rensselaer curricula, evident in courses such as Introduction to Engineering Design, the senior engineering capstone course held in the Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory, and the undergraduate degree program in Design, Innovation, and Society. EMPAC will extend that emphasis to all Rensselaer faculty, staff, students, artists, and researchers.

I have seen very few neatly packaged real-life problems that can be solved with a simple equation. In fact, the most interesting problems usually cross disciplinary boundaries and include aspects of culture and people. Certainly some components can sometimes be solved analytically, but there are also needs for creative approaches. Sometimes we can become too focused on finding “the right answer.” If our educational processes are overly focused on analytics, then we may be missing the importance of ensuring that we are addressing the “right problem.” To compete in the evolving global economy, it will not only be necessary to produce smart engineers and scientists — we must produce innovative technological leaders.

EMPAC provides an opportunity for us to remain on the leading edge of innovation education, by creating unmatched opportunities to meld the creativity of the arts with the discovery and discipline of the sciences and engineering.  

A fully realized education is much more than a classroom experience. It is exposure to research laboratories, campus life opportunities, and informal interactions with members of a diverse intellectual community. EMPAC provides for Rensselaer’s students all of those things.

As President Jackson has said, “science and technology are the concern of all our citizens...society therefore needs scientists and engineers who are able to speak out, guide the public, establish policy – in short, to serve as leaders. They must be not only technically brilliant but also articulate, broadminded, and humane. EMPAC will help our students grow into such leaders.”

Exposure to EMPAC—its facilities, its artistic performances and exhibitions, and the researchers, scientists, and artists who will collaborate there — is essential to forging the “innovative problem-solvers, excellent communicators, interdisciplinary thinkers, team participants, and skilled leaders” that the Rensselaer Plan describes.

Fostering innovation at the nexus of the arts, sciences, and technology to produce the inventors and inventions that will continue to change the world is a radical but imperative mission. But now is the time, and we are ready.

What a great time to be a part of how Rensselaer is once again leading to define what a technological education should be.

John Kolb ’79 is vice president for information services and technology and chief information officer of Rensselaer.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.