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Outstanding Teachers Create the Future

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

Today's Students, Tomorrow's Teachers
The Fountainhead, New Rochelle, New York

Thursday, May 4, 2006


I will begin at the beginning: I had outstanding teachers.

Indeed, it is an unnecessary truism to say that without teachers, none of us would be where we are today. And yet, it is important to acknowledge it — aloud — because, of course, teachers create the future, and each of us standing here proves it.

One of my outstanding teachers was Marie Moss Smith — my high school mathematics teacher, and, almost as importantly, a mentor, proponent, and role model. She was a native Washingtonian whose grandfather, former slave John A. Moss, was admitted to the D.C. Bar in 1873 and upon the recommendation of Frederick Douglass was appointed justice of the peace for Washington County in 1878 by President Rutherford B. Hayes, and reappointed by Presidents James Garfield and Grover Cleveland.

She received a master's degree in mathematics from Howard in 1934, and did doctoral work in mathematics at Catholic University and at Connecticut Wesleyan University.

She had a profound impact on my life and my career, as she did on generations of students both before and after me. She taught us mathematics, to be sure. But, we learned other important principles and life lessons. She would write complicated formulas on the blackboard, then, noticing that they were not correct, she would erase them, and begin again. This taught us never to fear plunging into a complex problem, to be unafraid to make a mistake, and to work through difficult issues. She would not let us give up, taught us self-discipline, gave us courage, and a lot of freedom to learn.

She fostered a community of learning where we achieved individually, and together. And, perhaps most of all, she trusted us. She could leave the classroom knowing that we would follow her lead, treat each other with the utmost respect, and live up to her expectations. Her speech, her dress, her approach projected both success and care.

When I received my Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), she was there. When I was sworn in as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission she was in the audience. And, she came to a special celebration following my induction into the National Academy of Engineering. She passed away only recently, and I tell you about her impact on my career and my life as tribute.

Now, I fully expect that everyone in this room can relate a similar story.

And, this is why the work of the Today's Students, Tomorrow's Teachers (TSTT) is not only inspiring, but essential. Because success begins with teachers, and it never ends. Teachers create the elements which lead to individual achievement, to collective attainment, to societal accomplishment, to national leadership, to global security and stability.

Let me develop this thought. An entry point to understanding the criticality of teachers is to take in the big picture.

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen seminal shifts in the global landscape and the emergence of several trends which will continue to shape our concepts of security, development, and even national sovereignty.

A first is the emphasis on technological superiority as an asset to national security. This is a function of multi-sector cooperation based on the fundamental principles which Vannevar Bush espoused in the post-World War II period. He held that government, industry, and academia could accomplish more in partnership than in isolation. With this cooperation, scientific research could be adapted to shifting national needs, and could accelerate the pace of innovation — relevant, also, to economic growth and societal benefit. The fact that each sector brought differing needs and priorities enhanced the pace of innovation.

[I cannot help but note that this triumvirate of interests holds with Today's Students, Tomorrow's Teachers, as well. The multi-sector cooperation represented in this room this evening — this collaborative partnership among educators, school districts, parents, volunteers, corporate interests, universities, and communities — attests to the effectiveness of this approach. I have been a strong proponent of partnerships — my work with corporations, with academia, and in government at a variety of levels, has convinced me that together we can accomplish more than alone. And, Today's Students, Tomorrow's Teachers is yet another demonstration of the same. is a testament to the effectiveness of this convergence of interests.]

A second trend is that socio-political alliances provide a formula for mutual protection.

A third is that the emergence of several nations from colonialism has driven them toward self-sufficiency. Globalization and globalizing technologies have led to a flattening world. The resulting New World Order is flat, but also asymmetrical and unstable, reflecting and causing, a social divide. And, instability, of course, leads to conflict and terrorism.

Finally, we have the arrival of giants: India and China. Few countries have had more spectacular success in harnessing their human capital than India and China — although they still face daunting hurdles. Together, India and China hold 40 percent of the world population. That China and India arrived, nearly simultaneously, as major economic players on the world stage likely will be regarded as a pivotal event of the 21st century.

These trends have led to a mounting disquiet over the ability of the United States to sustain its competitive edge. This concern was expressed forcefully by retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation Norman Augustine in an op. ed. essay published in The Washington Post, in December:

"In the five decades since I began working in the aerospace industry, I have never seen American business and academic leaders as concerned about this nation's future prosperity as they are today."

This unease turns on three converging elements:

  • Our national economic need for continued global competitiveness and global leadership;
  • The urgency of national, and global, energy security;
  • And, on tapping the full pool of talent for the next generations of innovators in all fields.

How did we get here?

Other nations have observed the elements which created our success, and as their economies blossomed in the global ecosystem, they have bolstered that flowering by ramping up investment in science and engineering research and development, and investing in their own intellectual capital.

Meanwhile, our own federal investment in basic research has declined by half since 1970, as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And, other converging trends are at work:

  • We have failed to excite and inspire our young people to achieve to the highest levels, as their middling scores on international science and mathematics examinations consistently demonstrate.
  • There are an insufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace the highly skilled science and engineering professionals who will retire in the next five to ten years.
  • U.S. immigration policies and new opportunities abroad have slowed the flow of international students, scientists, and engineers — who long have been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise.
  • Finally, our national demographics have shifted. Young women and ethnic and minority youth now account for more than half of the population. These youth traditionally have been underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering and technology, and today they hold only about a quarter of existing science, engineering, and technology positions. It is from this nontraditional group — this "new majority" — that the next generations of scientists and engineers must also come.

I call these converging trends the "Quiet Crisis." It is "quiet" because it takes decades to prepare a professional scientist or engineer — the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries, inventions, and innovations create whole new industries, and can help to mitigate the global scourges, which make for human suffering and instability.

The need for these important professionals continues to grow. And the "Quiet Crisis" impact is vividly observable in the growing need for energy security — anyone who has filled a gas tank understands. Where are the alternatives to $3 per gallon gasoline? How do we lessen our dependence on imported oil, and how do we develop energy alternatives?

Energy security reaches beyond our own nation, as this planet's 6.5 billion people are crowding the world's power generating capacity. By the year 2050, there will be 8 to 10 billion people, and their energy needs grow with their developing economies. We cannot expect their countries not to grow. Therefore, energy security may, indeed, be one of the biggest global challenges of the 21st century. The stability which true global energy security would offer the world would be priceless.

The alternatives to gasoline which costs upwards of $3 per gallon are in corporate and university laboratories, and we fervently hope that the results will become commercialized, and rapidly. But continued solutions to the energy crunch will require major innovation, and the development and exploitation of new technologies. And this requires people — bright, talented, inspired, engaged, highly educated people — who, of necessity, must be drawn from the complete talent pool — including from our "new majority." We cannot predict from where, and from whom, the next great ideas will emerge — which is why innovation demands a virtual cauldron of diverse, smart, focused, disciplined, committed individuals who continually challenge each other.

I have been talking about the "Quiet Crisis," and emphasizing that we must focus especially on preparing the "New Majority" for advanced study for some years now. I have called for both a national conversation on the issue, and the national will to action.

The conversation is now engaged, and action is imminent.

A flurry of reports, issued by corporate, academic, and government entities, within the last one-to-two years, has warned of the consequences to U.S. scientific and engineering innovation and leadership preeminence if we fail to act. They include reports from the Council on Competitiveness, the Business Roundtable, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the National Academies. Abundant media attention and copious concurring commentary have followed.

Over the last months, members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, on both sides of the aisle, have introduced more than a dozen bills designed to improve America's ability to compete in the global economy.

President Bush proposed his own spending and legislative proposal, the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) in his January State of the Union address, and has been speaking to the initiative around the nation. He has announced a National Math Panel of experts in mathematics, cognitive science, and education to determine the most effective ways to teach mathematics and to provide mathematics tools for teachers.

The common legislative themes include increasing federal research funding, improving K-12 science education, and encouraging undergraduate and graduate students to study science, mathematics, engineering, or technology.

In addition, many of the bills address the research and development (R&D) tax credit, immigration and visa issues, energy security, and other issues affecting American corporations.

Several components of the ACI were included in the FY 07 Presidential budget request, and we hope they remain in the FY 07 budget. These include increased research funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. Money is allocated in the Department of Education budget to improve K-12 mathematics teaching, train teachers to teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, and evaluate mathematics and science education programs conducted by federal agencies.

I, personally, would emphasize support for basic science research across a broad disciplinary front, investment in enhanced K-12 science and mathematics education, and direct funding for students pursuing degrees in science and engineering at the undergraduate and graduate level.

I would emphasize permanent research and development tax credits, together with an expanded definition to include training, research, and internship opportunities for young people pursuing degrees in science and engineering.

I would emphasize a comprehensive review of intellectual property rights in light of global competition.

This new national focus is encouraging, but we must see that it is followed by effective programs to recreate the excitement and the financial commitment that the nation exhibited after the launch of Sputnik.

The Administration and the Congress must link policy proposals to the budget, ensuring real investment in the components of an innovation agenda. In other words, we must link rhetoric to reality.

States, and even cities, are not waiting for federal action, but moving ahead with their own plans. New York City, as an example, will offer housing subsidies of as much as $14,600 to mathematics and science teachers, who agree to teach in the city's most challenging schools.

We must remain watchful, too, so that every new program embraces the young women and ethnic minority youth who comprise the "new majority" of our new demographics.

My teachers imparted to me universal values and a thirst for excellence, a drive to leadership, and an appreciation of community. They, also, prepared me for the world I would enter. But, that world has changed. And, what worked for me, and for my generation, of necessity must change, as well.

What must we teach to prepare today's students for the world of today?

The overarching global mix of opportunities and challenges requires that we educate new kinds of graduates. They must have knowledge and skills which plumb disciplines deeply and broadly, and they must be educated experientially with minds-on, hands-on understanding. They must be familiar with, or appreciate interdisciplinary, and cross-disciplinary work, their own fields of study and beyond. They must be critical consumers and analyzers of information.

They need to know how to create opportunity for themselves and impart that knowledge to their own students. They must have the entrepreneurial skills to take risks, and seize opportunities — to take discovery and innovation out of the classroom or laboratory and into the marketplace and into the larger world to create real change.

They must have broad vision, and long-term vision, to see the context within which they will work, and to see beyond it. They must be able to provide effective teamwork in a global arena, and to work, orthogonally and horizontally. They must be able to lead globally, in new situations, in other cultures, and to understand and to appreciate differences, and how to take advantage of them to reach new levels of achievement. In other words, today's students must develop strong analytical skills, the ability to lead or work in multidisciplinary environments. They must have multicultural sophistication and intellectual agility.

The students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are part of this new emphasis — and we encourage them to share their accumulating knowledge and skills. Many of them are involved in tutoring and mentoring in area middle schools and high schools. Some of them will go on to careers in teaching. Many of them will go on to research careers in science and engineering where they, also will be involved as role models, mentors, tutors, and teachers by example. In fact, Rensselaer was founded, 182 years ago, as a place where scholars learned by specifically by teaching what they had learned to others. This principle — of active teaching to enhance learning — still pertains at Rensselaer.

In the end, it is all about IDEAS — and how to nurture ideas, to teach young people, to prepare them for their part of this new global world, and the competitive global market world which demands the development of the best ideas.

This is a tall order. It is an order which my own university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is transforming itself and its offerings in order to fill — as are other universities. But we cannot fulfill this mission unless our students are well equipped by their preparatory studies. And, that is where you come in.

I hope that sharing this vision will underscore the context in which Today's Students, Tomorrow's Teachers is such a valuable approach. We must have teachers. We must have the best teachers. We must have teachers who are role models. We must have teachers who understand the communities from which their students come, and the contexts within which they best learn.

The rewards for preparing today's youth to become the means for the production of tomorrow's ideas are enormous. Their contributions will play forward into the future, just as Marie Moss Smith's contributions to her students are still playing forward. You are creating today's Marie Moss Smiths to lead new generations of scholars into the universities and the world of ideas.

The rewards are incalculable.

I congratulate all the award winners, and those who enable what TSST does.

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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