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16th Annual Black Family Technology Awareness Day

“The Greatest Adventure in the World”

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

DCC Great Hall
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Saturday, February 1, 2014


It is a delight to welcome many of the brightest young students in the Capital Region today to our 16th annual Black Family Technology Awareness Day.

We are very happy that you are here! You offer us, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the chance to demonstrate what we do best, which is to give young people the education and the tools that allow them to change the world.

I also want to welcome your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, church leaders and teachers. They all understand that of all the many ways you could spend a Saturday— this one might make the biggest difference in your lives.

Today, we are going to show you some of the infinite number of cool things you can choose to do, if you study science, math, engineering, and technology. The younger children here may not understand the distinction between scientists and engineers. While scientists discover new things about our world, engineers apply those discoveries to solve real-world problems, such as designing a bridge that will continue standing under all conditions, or developing a new kind of insulation for a winter coat.

I can guarantee you one thing: Whether you have signed up for the Gumdrop Design 101 workshop, or the Space Suit Challenge, or the heart-stopping high stakes of the New York Stock Exchange Trading Floor Simulation, you are going to be amazed today.

Feeling wowed is only appropriate, since traveling through science, math, engineering, and technology is the greatest adventure in the world—a greater adventure than tiger taming or motorcycle racing—because it is the only adventure that will take you to the stars.

Have any of you seen the movie Gravity? The heroine is a scientist doing experiments in space.

Right now, someone who went to school here at Rensselaer actually is on the International Space Station performing experiments. His name is Rick Mastracchio, and on Christmas Eve, he spent seven hours outside the station on a spacewalk, working to fix a broken pump.

Another Rensselaer graduate will begin his mission on the International Space Station in May. Not so long ago, these astronauts were like many of you, kids who liked science and math.

And it is not just human astronauts we develop at Rensselaer by teaching science and engineering, but also robot astronauts. Does anybody here think robots are cool?

I agree.

It was a Rensselaer student who wrote key pieces of the computer code for the first human-like robot developed by NASA, and sent to the International Space Station.

We are working on another robot at Rensselaer, an amazing character we call Cogito, that is so human, it can tell when it does not look its best. When Cogito sees itself in a mirror, it is intelligent enough to recognize itself. And if there is a mark on its forehead, Cogito can decide on its own to remove it. I suspect that if Cogito had hair to comb or teeth to brush, it would not have to be nagged to do so.

Do any of you watch the television game show Jeopardy? We have a cognitive computing system here named Watson, that is so good at learning, and then, at making decisions based on what it has learned, it was able to beat the best human champions at Jeopardy! Watson was developed at IBM, largely by Rensselaer graduates, who arrived here as young people excited by technology, science, engineering, and math, graduated and went on to do great things in their careers.

Of course, your interests may run less to robotics, intelligent computers, and space science—and more to the life sciences, to plants, to animals, to medicine.

The scientists, engineers, and students here are doing tremendous things in medicine—including learning how to regrow body tissues for people who are injured. They also are developing an app that can run on a cellphone to train doctors how to perform new surgeries.

Other professors and students are studying the ways plants convert sunlight into energy, so we humans can learn a trick or two for our own energy generation. We also have people who study the microorganisms that live in the most extreme environments on earth—in part, better to understand whether there could be life on other planets.

Just recently, Rensselaer people helped to discover water on Mars. This is important, because water is known to be one of key requirements for life itself.

Many scientists used to believe that the answer to the question, “Is there life somewhere else in the universe?” was a definite no. Now, it is a definite maybe…possibly verging into a probably.

This is a question any one of you has the chance resolve.

Or you may choose to answer another question that is just as interesting, such as…

  • Can we learn to speak the language of dolphins?
  • Can we predict how a city full of people will behave in an earthquake?
  • Can we design houses, or walls of houses, that respond to our moods and make gloomy days warmer and brighter?
  • Can we find a way to travel around the world instantly just by snapping our fingers?

Whatever dreams you have, there is one proven way to explore the possibilities: Learn all the science and math you can.

The science and math you are learning now provide a trampoline that can catapult you…

  • into space;
  • into the atom;
  • into the smartphone, or its replacement;
  • into the deepest crevices of the ocean;
  • into the mind of an elephant, or of your best friend;
  • onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange;
  • or onto the summit of Mount Everest.

If you develop leadership skills and a strong desire to change the world for the better, they could even catapult you into the Congress of the United States, or into the White House—as President of the United States.

I am going to end today by introducing you to a man who was once a kid who loved math and science—a man with a degree in mechanical and industrial engineering from Clarkson University, who is one of the most enthusiastic and eloquent advocates in the country for STEM education—a man who is a member of the Congress of the United States.

Congressman Paul Tonko represents New York’s 20th Congressional District, which includes Troy, Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, and Amsterdam. He serves on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S House of Representatives, and previously served on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Before being elected to Congress, Paul was the President and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and an important partner in many of the cutting-edge research efforts here. Before that, he was a member of the New York State Legislature.

Please join me in welcoming Congressman Paul Tonko…


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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