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Seattle Alumni Reception

“The Aspirational Element”

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

Museum of Flight – Red Barn
Seattle, WA

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Good evening to the many Rensselaer alumni and alumnae who are joining us tonight. It is my pleasure to be with you here in the great Northwest—in this historic location—home of the original manufacturing plant of The Boeing Company. It is inspiring to be standing in the very structure, where the aerospace industry largely came into being.

As some of you know, William E. Boeing became fascinated by the idea of flight after attending the first American air meet in Los Angeles in 1908, and believed that he could build a better airplane than the ones that he saw. Several years later, he and his friend, George Conrad Westervelt, a Navy engineer, designed and constructed the B&W, a twin-float seaplane, and the seeds of The Boeing Company as we know it today were planted.

In discussing his venture, Boeing said, “We are trustees of a veritable revolution that is taking place once more in the economic, social, and political fabric, with the advent of this new speed medium.”

At Rensselaer, we share that sense of trusteeship. We know that we are trustees of, and work to advance, veritable revolutions in advanced materials, in biotechnology, in computation and cognitive systems, and in energy—among other fields—helping to lead scientific and technological revolutions, and to improve lives around the globe. This, of course, is built on our fundamental strengths in engineering, science, architecture, management, and key areas in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

Earlier this year, we had the pleasure of hosting Boeing CEO and Chairman W. James McNerney Jr., as well as a group of other Boeing executives, on the Troy campus. During my conversation with Mr. McNerney, in front of a large audience at our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, he pointed out that Boeing seeks out and hires Rensselaer graduates because they share with the company “an aspirational element,” and a commitment to making the world a better place.

In fact, Boeing currently employs 426 Rensselaer graduates, including several of you in the room tonight. The Boeing Company also provides our students with a significant number of internships, and supports a variety of research efforts at Rensselaer. This includes the work of Professor Miki Amitay, James L. Decker ’45 Endowed Chair in Aerospace Engineering and director of our Center for Flow Physics and Control, on the active control of air flow over aircraft. Professor Amitay is developing actuators that can virtually reshape an aircraft with jets of air, or dynamically modify its actual surface, to reduce drag and improve its energy efficiency and performance.

The excellent relationship we share with The Boeing Company is just one example of the successes we have achieved since 1999 under The Rensselaer Plan. As you saw in the video, we have assembled the people, programs, platforms and partnerships that have transformed Rensselaer.

Our efforts continue to pay dividends. There were more than 18,600 applicants for our incoming freshman class, the Class of 2018—a new record— and more than triple the number just nine years ago. The incoming class also sets a new record in terms of academic credentials, including SAT scores, rank in class, and range of experiences.

Our recent rankings by multiple measures also underscore our achievements: This spring, Payscale released a report that says that Rensselaer offers, in terms of our graduates’ net income over 20 years, one of the highest returns on investment in the nation among American private universities. The Princeton Review recently named our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program as one of the best in the nation for video game design, placing 18th out of 150 undergraduate programs. In the U.S. News and World Report graduate school rankings, our School of Engineering ranked 38th in the nation overall, with five graduate programs ranked among the top 25: aerospace engineering, industrial engineering, materials science engineering, mechanical engineering, and nuclear engineering.

To build on these successes, we have revised and refreshed The Rensselaer Plan, in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of our founding in 2024. With The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we are moving beyond transforming Rensselaer, to becoming even more transformative in three fundamental ways…

  • In the global impact of our research,
  • In our innovative pedagogy,
  • And in the lives of our students.

Let me begin with our research enterprise. Our remarkable faculty are enabling us to take on the great global challenges of our time—related to food, water, and energy security; global and national security; human health; climate change; and the allocation of scarce natural resources.

At Rensselaer, our research is undergirded by five signature thrusts:

  • computational science and engineering;
  • biotechnology and the life sciences;
  • nanotechnology and advanced materials;
  • energy, the environment, and smart systems; and
  • media, arts, science, and technology.

All five of these research areas are impacted greatly by the tsunami of data the world is generating, given the Internet, social media, the proliferation of sensored devices and structures, and the rise of the “Internet of Things.”

Last June, we created a Rensselaer-wide initiative—The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or The Rensselaer IDEA. The Rensselaer IDEA brings together our strengths in web science, high-performance computing, data science and predictive analytics, and immersive technologies—and links them to applications at the interface of engineering, and the physical, life, and social sciences, in order to expedite scientific discovery and innovation.

All of this work maximizes the use of the remarkable computational ecosystem that we have coalesced at Rensselaer. This computational ecosystem includes platforms that allow us to confront challenges at sufficient scale to have global impact. First, housed in the Center for Computational Innovations, or CCI, we have AMOS, the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university. AMOS has a processing power of 1.1 petaflops—or more than a quadrillion calculations per second—nearly 150,000 calculations per second for every person on earth.

This computational horsepower enables transformative research. Dr. Vincent Meunier, our Gail and Jeffrey L. Kodosky ’70 Constellation Professor of Physics, Information Technology, and Entrepreneurship, has used computational modeling within the CCI to explore the potential use of a hybrid material known as graphene oxide frameworks, or GOFs, as a desalination membrane to obtain fresh water from saltwater. Dr. Meunier’s supercomputer simulations indicated that GOFs may speed up the inefficient desalination processes currently in use by as much as 100 times—potentially increasing access to fresh water for many people around the globe.

Within the CCI, we also have Watson, the remarkable IBM cognitive computing system that in 2011 was able to beat the best human champions at Jeopardy! The natural language processing ability and powerful inference engines of Watson allow it to absorb a tremendous amount of unstructured data, to learn from it, and to make intelligent decisions based on what it has learned.

At Rensselaer, our scientists are expanding the capabilities of Watson, enabling it to answer questions based not merely on the information programmed into it, but also on the world of open information Watson finds on the Web. We also have shown that Watson can be used as a search engine for datasets on the Web, including the over one million datasets produced by governments around the world. Our researchers are using Watson to identify datasets of interest, and then to explain the information found within those datasets—including the data being produced by project located at Lake George, which I will tell you about in a moment.

Beyond these examples, together, AMOS and Watson will allow us to do agent-based modeling, or the modeling of human decision-making, at a level that may help us determine, for example, how best to evacuate a city of millions following a natural disaster.

The Rensselaer IDEA is intended to allow our researchers in every field to work together across departments and schools to engage in data-driven discovery and innovation. We are, for example, bringing together our web and data scientists with the bioengineers in our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies [CBIS], to find novel pathways for diagnosing and mitigating disease.

Health care is a particularly promising field for the data explorations enabled by The Rensselaer IDEA. Last year, we signed a partnership with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which couples our strengths in biomedical engineering, the basic sciences, and all computational fields with the treasure trove of patient data and clinical experience at Mount Sinai, in order to develop new therapeutics and treatment modalities based on genomic and clinical data.

In addition to conducting joint research projects, we also are offering the students of both institutions exciting new educational opportunities—including the FlexMed program at Mount Sinai, which allows Rensselaer sophomores to apply for medical school without taking the MCAT exam. Those admitted first finish their Rensselaer undergraduate degrees, and then move directly into the Icahn School of Medicine. Already, we have three students applying to FlexMed, and three students who will do research internships at Mount Sinai this summer.

A new partnership with Optum Labs—a collaborative research center founded by the Mayo Clinic and health care management and technology company Optum—expands our opportunity for data-driven discoveries and innovations in health care. This partnership gives us access to 150 million patient records to help us, through data analytics and other tools, to find correlations that can lead to new uses for old pharmaceuticals and better treatments of all kinds.

Another exciting partnership under the auspices of The Rensselaer IDEA is The Jefferson Project at Lake George. Joining forces with IBM and The Fund for Lake George, we are creating a new, data-driven model for environmental protection—turning Lake George into the world’s smartest lake, so that we can understand and mitigate its stressors. We are putting into place…

  • cyberphysical platforms, including sensors that can monitor the lake in real time;
  • a visualization hub at our Darrin Fresh Water Institute; and
  • an experimental platform that includes mesocosms, or water enclosures, which allow us to control the conditions for water-based investigations.

In conjunction with high-performance and cognitive computing, these tools will allow us to develop circulation models, food web models, and biochemical models of the lake, so that our efforts to protect it are informed fully by science. We already are using underwater sensors to begin doing bathymetry studies of the Lake George typography. The visualization hub at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute will be constructed by the late fall, and will open as a research and education center by the end of the calendar year.

Our Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, with its remarkable visualization and perceptualization capabilities, is another key platform for research and teaching. Within EMPAC, we are developing a unique research endeavor with IBM—the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory [CISL]. Although this laboratory has not yet been announced formally, I wanted to share the news with you. Taking advantage of the visualization, animation, acoustical, and haptic capabilities of EMPAC, CISL will allow us to learn more about the role of technology in human cognitive development, while enabling new leaps in artificially intelligent systems that are closer to human understanding and reasoning—helping us, in the end, to merge human cognition and cognitive systems so we can push into new domains of knowledge. We are excited about the possibilities CISL offers in advancing human-machine interactions to enable both research and art, and their intersection, as well as new ways to teach our students.

This leads me to the next arena for which we are known, and where we intend to be even more transformative, and that is in our innovative pedagogy—our teaching.

Let me begin with an area where Rensselaer always has been impactful—through our graduates and as an institution. One of the sectors changing most rapidly because of advances in data science and computation is manufacturing. We clearly do an excellent job here of educating engineers in product design, innovation, and production, and Rensselaer students regularly place very high in—and often win—the prestigious American Society of Mechanical Engineers [ASME] and Society of Manufacturing Engineers [SME] student competitions.

However, manufacturing is undergoing a revolution driven by new technologies. The networking of products, 3-D printing, materials informatics, robotics, and virtual prototyping are making manufacturing a particularly exciting sector for our engineering students. All of this today falls under the rubric of Advanced Manufacturing.

To prepare the next generation of technology pioneers and manufacturing leaders, we have transformed our Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory into The MILL, or the Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory. We are expanding the fundamental instruction we long have offered to undergraduates with graduate-level classes focused on breakthroughs in advanced manufacturing, including…

  • nano- and micro-scale manufacturing,
  • Big Data collection,
  • high-speed manufacturing,
  • advanced robotics,
  • advanced composites, and
  • additive manufacturing.

Along with this expansion in the course of study, we will expand the physical space in which The MILL is housed.

At Rensselaer, we have transformed the university, in part, by recognizing that the arts and the sciences reinforce each other. We have encouraged these symbioses…

  • By creating EMPAC, a remarkable platform for aural, visual, and virtual experience;
  • By developing interdisciplinary crossroads such as The Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture; and
  • By expanding the curriculum to include Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, and soon, music degree programs.

These advances are linked foundational elements for yet another unique initiative—Art Across the Curriculum. Art Across the Curriculum will take the intersection of art and science even further, by introducing art into every one of our schools—to broaden our students’ horizons, to have them see the infusion of art and its quantitative aspects in engineering and science, as well as the enablement of art by science and technology. This, we believe, will deepen their understanding of their own chosen fields, and help them to become more creative in design and discovery.

We continue to advance technology-enabled learning. We have The Mandarin Project, which uses a multi-player game, an emergent reality classroom, and interaction with sentient digital beings to teach the Chinese language and culture. Once perfected, it will form the basis of a new way to teach language and to prepare students for study abroad. We also are offering The Virtual Bridge to Rensselaer, to help those incoming freshmen who could use special acclimatization to Rensselaer, and more preparation in calculus, before beginning their formal studies. The program is scheduled to bring 30 students to Rensselaer in early July for orientation and introduction to calculus, which the students will continue in a self-paced online course over the balance of the summer. We have developed a MOOC-like platform for this based on Open edX, developed by MIT and Harvard, and on a Rensselaer student-developed platform—Grapefruit.

Finally, as we strive to be transformative in the lives of our students, we continue to blur the lines between living and learning. One way in which we do this is through the HASS Inquiry Courses we piloted this academic year, which include both a classroom and a residence-based component. These courses focus on fundamental social, ethical, philosophical, and economic questions that cut across multiple disciplines. They are designed to encourage future scientists, engineers, business managers, architects, and scholars of all types to be as thoughtful as possible about their fields of endeavor. The Inquiry Courses were so successful that they now will be offered to almost our entire incoming Class of 2018.

We also are expanding CLASS, our Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students. We are well aware that a Rensselaer education does not take place solely in the classroom, but also in the interactions students have with each other, faculty and administrators outside the classroom, and with the surrounding community. CLASS is designed to foster these interactions, and to create a sense of belonging and engagement for our students—through both residential and time-based clustering.

Within small residential communities, students receive live-in support from Assistant Deans, graduate students, and upperclassmen—as well as support from a Faculty Dean of the Residential Commons and/or Faculty Fellows, who are world-class scholars. For the time-based clustering, CLASS begins with the award-winning First-Year Experience for freshmen, and then continues, as a Class Dean is assigned to each cohort of sophomores and remains a class advocate and guide until graduation. Moving forward, we intend to include more support for graduate students and their families through the CLASS model.

Through formal and less formal engagement, the ultimate goal is to help our students to develop the intellectual agility and multicultural sophistication to lead in the global community, and to engender in them the confidence to answer the Rensselaer motto, “Why not change the world?”

An ability to rise to global challenges differentiates Rensselaer graduates from many of their peers. The people in this room offer proof of that. As you know, Rensselaer always has been a rigorous and exciting place to receive an education, and it grows more so with each passing year.

To make Rensselaer even more of a transformative force around the globe, we will need the continued support and partnership of the entire Rensselaer community. We invite you to join us on this journey.

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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