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Here to Create Your Futures

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

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, N.Y.

Thursday, April 4, 2009


Thank you, Vice President (James G.) Nondorf for your introduction.

Good morning. Welcome to all of you — our admitted students and their families.

I extend a special greeting to admitted students and families in other campus venues participating by simulcast. 

Of course, we are aware of the unspeakable events that unfolded in Binghamton, New York, yesterday. Our hearts and prayers go out to all the victims’ families, and to all who may have been affected by the tragedy — including some from the Binghamton area, who may be with us today.

As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I am delighted — and excited — to welcome all of you to our Troy, New York, campus.

We call this day — the Accepted Student Celebration — for a reason — and it is, indeed, a celebration — a celebration of you. You are smart, talented, ambitious, accomplished — and ready to create your futures. We know that you will thrive and succeed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This is a day devoted to helping you discover what makes Rensselaer a very special place.

Because there is so much to explore here, we can show you only highlights of what makes Rensselaer truly exciting.

But first, I will set the historical context, which will tell you a good deal about what Rensselaer is today. Because, we live our legacy, and build upon it, as we create the future.

Rensselaer is the oldest technological university in the nation, created 185 years ago. Our university is anchored by two vibrant roots:

  • One root, written into our founding documents, is “…the application of science to the common purposes of life …” This kept the early focus on solutions to national and international challenges. Rensselaer graduates constructed the canals, the roads, the bridges, the sky scrapers, and basic infrastructure, which undergirded the industrial revolution, and formed the basis for 20th century society. They changed the world — not only within the United States, but outside, as well, with a notable contingent of Latin American scholars, who returned home and built much of the infrastructure there.
  • The second root, also embedded in our origin, was the employment of unique educational strategies. Early on, after initial instruction, students presented what they had learned to each other. Likewise, students performed scientific experiments — rather than just watch faculty conduct them — as had been the common practice elsewhere.

At the time, these were revolutionary ideas. Now, nearly two hundred years later, these concepts still form the foundation of Rensselaer education, and their lineage continues to unfold.

Today, the Rensselaer challenge — “Why not change the world?” — acknowledges that the “common purposes of life” now include ever greater challenges that transcend geographic and disciplinary boundaries. Today’s challenges encompass economic stability, environmental sustainability, infectious disease, terrorism and other security concerns, energy security and sustainability, water resources, food and medicine supply, cultural enlightenment, and much more.

The Rensselaer approach to academics, and to problem-solving, continues, with an education based on creativity and discovery, rooted in disciplinary fundamentals — infused with the experiential. The Rensselaer learning tradition, now, includes intentional multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinary research. From the outset, we challenge our students to discover, to create, and to define and to identify problems, and to resolve them.

Students studying aerodynamics may reframe, and solve, a difficult aircraft wing design and stability problem. Architecture students might find themselves in New York City at the Rensselaer Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) — designing next generation high-efficiency solar power systems for building envelopes.

Undergraduates have the opportunity to work directly with faculty members on bona fide research projects. In the School of Science, students may focus on the quantum nature of nanostructured systems, or on biochemical solar energy research — trying to understand, and to mimic, how plants generate and convert energy from the sun.

Students in other disciplines and schools will be similarly challenged and engaged, because our talented faculty are driving a research renaissance in leading-edge areas such as biotechnology and the life sciences; nanotechnology; computational science and engineering; energy and the environment; and media and the arts.

Here in EMPAC — the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center — students have the opportunity for powerful new experiences at the intersection of media, the arts, science, and technology — while participating in the creation and use of human-scale immersive, conjoined physical and virtual environments — as tools for research, learning, and culture.

One of the many platforms to support our emphasis on research, learning, and culture for undergraduates, results from an extraordinary venture among Rensselaer, IBM, and New York State, which has created one of the world’s most powerful university-based supercomputing centers — the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI). Equipped with IBM Blue Gene computers, and other specialized processors, the CCNI is housed in the Rensselaer Technology Park (our Technology Park), just south of Troy. It links to EMPAC, and to other Rensselaer educational and research facilities.

We work to prepare students — you — to operate within the broader global context, to become multi-culturally sophisticated leaders, able to see connections between disciplines and among sectors, with the intellectual agility to understand and solve complex problems, and to evolve as your careers progress, as the world changes. You will be preparing to operate in a world which will require you to reason, to question, to analyze, to evaluate, and to assess — to bring together ideas, institutions, and people from around the world, and across cultures.

As a consequence, we are developing opportunities for every undergraduate to have experiences abroad. We call this REACH — Rensselaer Education Across Cultural Horizons. This includes international co-op and internship experiences, summer overseas semesters led by Rensselaer faculty, academic semesters at other top universities, and research opportunities — all over the world. In fact, I have just returned from South Africa, where we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Stellenbosch University, near Cape Town. The plan provides for teams of U.S. and South African engineering and science students to work jointly (over the course of an academic year) on projects relevant to South Africa — with each team spending a month (each) in the summer, at both Rensselaer and Stellenbosch, to culminate the project. This will provide opportunities for our students to work with their counterparts in an increasingly important country in an important part of the world, as South Africa continues its transition to a true post-Apartheid era, and as it emerges as an African champion, and a beacon of hope for the world.

A part of my delegation, also, visited Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. We, also, expect to establish a similar exchange program there.

Our recent experiences in Africa, and our partnerships in China, in India, and in Europe, are creating unique pathways to exceptional global experiences for our students. As we speak, 60 engineering juniors are studying in Denmark and in Singapore this spring, with a concomitant cohort of Danish and Singaporean students studying, this semester, at Rensselaer. All of this builds upon our long-standing study-abroad programs for architecture students in Italy, China, and India.

Net-net, Rensselaer educational strategies emphasize — again — discovery, creation, invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, venture — and serendipity. Rensselaer education is focused on developing your mind, of course, but, also, on developing your “self.” Education, ultimately, is about self-discernment — which extends through, and to, “other”-discernment. This entails enlarging and extending your “self” through empathy, understanding, compassion.

As a result of their studies and interests, Rensselaer undergraduates routinely make new discoveries, and develop innovative technologies, which can make a difference in the lives of people around the world. Here are a few examples:

  • A team of Rensselaer engineering students is developing a groundbreaking (patent-pending) detection system that can sense the presence of many dangerous compounds from a distance. The device will help to solve the global problem associated with unexploded ordnance such as landmines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Calling themselves “MineWerks,” the team is among several collegiate teams that showcased their innovative technologies during the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) annual “March Madness for the Mind” exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
  • Twice a year our students have the opportunity to bring forward innovative, technological ideas in the “Change the World Challenge,” and to win financial support to develop their innovations further. Students have invented a handheld device to detect early stage skin cancer, a disposable robot capable of removing land mines, an antibiotic bandage made of honey (a natural antiseptic), rice, and wax paper, for use in parts of the world where individuals cannot afford, or do not have, access to proper bandages.
  • Two days ago, Whitney Coleman, a junior in the Electronic Media, Arts, and Communication (EMAC) program of the Rensselaer School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, celebrated her debut CD of original gospel music, “Bright Morning Star,” with a performance, here, in the EMPAC Concert Hall. A Rensselaer student-athlete, and an Adidas All American, Ms. Coleman performed songs she wrote while at Rensselaer — and while recovering from a knee injury, which caused her to miss a year of basketball. The concert was a part of her senior thesis project.
  • Undergraduates in the Cancer Cell Biology Group are studying the interaction of human cancerous cells with the normal tissue microenvironment during metastatic cancer invasion. Using a simple co-culture model system, students are investigating the interactions between the extracellular proteins of normal and cancer cells, alterations in signal transduction and migration in co-cultures, and changes in what is known as “fibronectin isoform expressions” in cancer cells, as a function of interaction with normal cells.
  • I could go on and on, but I will share just one more example. A group of students, who are part of the Rensselaer Center for Open Software (RCOS), has developed an application for the popular Apple iPhone that allows users to log, track, and manage their personal spending. The application is called Vault, and is available free to anyone seeking a better way to manage his or her money. The students who developed the application are juniors majoring in computer science. They describe it as “Quicken for the iPhone.” It replaces the check register, a financial relic many young people have never used, anyway. Parents — as your young people begin to function independently — and on budgets — you may want them to begin using Vault immediately! 

Your Rensselaer experience will begin in August with “Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond.” You are offered a host of options from which to choose — from outdoor adventures, to cultural, artistic, historical, recreational, entrepreneurial, and mind-expanding experiences that are fun and challenging — that help you become more familiar with Rensselaer, with your classmates, and with the Greater Capital Region — so that you feel a part of Rensselaer right away. This is one aspect of our national award-winning “First-Year Experience” program, which continues throughout your first year — with comprehensive academic and personal support, exciting activities and residence hall counseling programs.

Building upon this, we are initiating a comprehensive student living/learning model we call “Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students” (or CLASS). The CLASS initiative supports enhanced residence life programming, based on clusters of residence halls (or commons, as we call them), with faculty deans of residence commons, live-in commons deans, faculty fellows, and with support and input from upper-class undergraduates and graduate student resident assistants. We, also, are beginning the appointment of individual class year deans. Each freshman class is nurtured and supported by a team led by the Dean of the First Year Experience. When you become sophomores, a Class Dean, for your class, will take over and see your class — each class — through to graduation.

Above all, Rensselaer faculty and staff are committed to your success here. Our Student Life and Academic plans will enable more, and more responsive, support for students — whether academic, psychological, or health-related; more academic, career, and life counseling; more living/learning experiences; more deliberate progressive leadership and community growth opportunities; more interactions among students and faculty and administrators and staff — both inside and outside of the classroom.

While your academic work will keep you very, very busy, you, also, will have the opportunity to choose from among more than 170 clubs, sports, and organizations, to explore your interests. They vary widely — from the astrophysical society, to game development, model railroading, ballroom dancing, music ensembles, drama, the student-run newspaper — the Poly, and our radio station — WRPI-fm, and service groups such as the RPI ambulance service and Habitat for Humanity.  Or, you can start new clubs, if you choose, through the Rensselaer Union.

Athletics is important at Rensselaer. The Rensselaer reputation for scholar-athletes continues to bring us recognition. Our field hockey team earned a 2008 National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) Division III Academic Team Award with a team grade point average of 3.53 for the fall 2008 semester. Rensselaer ranks second in Division III, and third nationally, when including all divisions — because of the number of Academic All Americans we have. This is the third time in the last five years that Rensselaer has been ranked in the top five.

More than 5,000 of our students participate in intramurals, club, and recreational sports. To accommodate the needs of all of our athletes and scholars, we are building the East Campus Athletic Village (ECAV). This coming fall — in October, we will celebrate the completion of the first phase of ECAV. ECAV includes new outdoor fields for various sports, a new football field with a 5,200-7,500-seat stadium, a gymnasium seating up to 2,000, and later, a natatorium with an Olympic-sized pool and practice pool, and a field house for indoor track and field, and other indoor sports. As part of ECAV, we have expanded the Houston Field House (our ice hockey arena) which, now, accommodates new offices and new locker rooms for men’s and women’s ice hockey — our Division I sport. More upgrades to the Houston Field House will occur next year.

CONCLUSION

In the end, you are here to create your futures — your own futures — and our mission is to put amazing opportunities before amazing young people — to enable you to create the future you want. This is a place where you can dream big dreams — and make those dreams reality.

We have extended invitations to you to become part of the Rensselaer tradition — and its future — because we believe that you are the talented, focused, and interesting young people who will benefit the most from, and contribute to, the unique experience that is Rensselaer. Here, you will be challenged and inspired as never before. I look forward to greeting you in the fall, and to meeting you along the road of your remarkable journeys here.

One last thing: How many of you saw the movie, “Slumdog Millionaire?”

Well, you know it won eight Oscars — including one for Best Cinematography. The cameras used to film the action scenes were developed by a Rensselaer graduate who launched his company at the Rensselaer Incubator. Using his compact, yet powerful, digital cameras and software, the cinematographers were able to immerse themselves in crowd action scenes. The cameras were plugged into Apple MacBook Pros, packed in dry ice to keep them cool, and carried in backpacks as the cinematographers walked and worked in the streets of Mumbai, India. The cameras performed so well that the filmmakers used them for about 60 percent of the filming of the movie.

This is the kind of future a Rensselaer education offers you.

Now, begin to explore Rensselaer. Enjoy your day.

Thank you.


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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