Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
2003 Junior Museum Gala
Junior Museum, Troy, New York
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
Thank you, John Nigro for that kind introduction.
The wonderful relationship enjoyed by Rensselaer and the Junior Museum is a partnership that pleases me immensely for several reasons.
Since my arrival at Rensselaer in 1999, I have worked to promote and enable stronger and more productive ties between the university and the City of Troy.
Like every successful partnership, the collaboration of Rensselaer and the Junior Museum requires the dedication and vision of many people. When you honor me, you honor all the faculty and students and administrators at Rensselaer who participate in this growing partnership, as well as the professionals and volunteers of the Junior Museum who work so hard to make these collaborations such a positive experience for all concerned.
And so, it is on behalf of many people that I thank you for honoring me this evening.
Rachel Carson, the biologist, ecologist, and author best known for The Silent Spring , her 1962 warning about the hazards of DDT, once said,
"A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood."
The tragedy of this situation is that the child's sense of wonder and excitement need not be lost. Whenever I step through the doors into this museum, I find myself stepping back into my own childhood, a childhood in which my dreams and sense of wonder were nourished and encouraged to grow.
My own early curiosity about science was manifested by my experiments with bees. During one three-year period, I collected, and experimented on, live bees of all sorts — bumblebees, yellow jackets, wasps — adjusting their habitats, their diets, and their exposure to light and heat, all the while keeping a detailed log of my observations of their behavior. My parents, needless to say, were very indulgent (given that much of my laboratory was buzzing under our back porch), and they encouraged me to pursue my developing interest in science.
I did not know it then, but this was a critical point in my life: a point where my curiosity was not caged or suppressed, but allowed to blossom — where I had access to an opportunity for my dreams to become a reality. As a result of this and other nurturing, I was inspired, and I grew strong enough to push consistently through discrimination and other adversities in my drive to become a physicist.
The Junior Museum is a community treasure. This is a place where a child's sense of wonder is nourished and curiosity is rewarded. This is a place where even very young children can experience the excitement — and relevance — of science. This is a place where the next generation of scientists and engineers may be born.
Professor Linda Schadler, one of a growing number of enthusiastic Rensselaer-Junior Museum collaborators, is the driving force behind the Molecularium. She has seen the impact of the museum in her own kitchen. The morning after visiting the Molecularium, Dr. Schadler's four-year old daughter announced excitedly, "Mommy! My orange juice is made of molecules!" The exhibit makes no mention of juice, but the child had intuitively made the connection between a fun exhibit and the reality of the breakfast table.
The need to discover, and to nurture, the next generation of technological leaders has become a national imperative. We are facing a steadily mounting gap between the growing need for technically skilled workers, and our nation's production of these people.
Although engineers and scientists represent a very small part of the nation's total workforce, their contributions — whether creating new knowledge or translating this knowledge into new products, services, and technologies — underpin our prosperity, our quality of life, and our national security.
According to the Council on Competitiveness, an estimated 6 million job openings are projected for technically trained workers between 1998 and 2008, despite an uncertain economy.
It is therefore of grave concern that the National Science Board predicts one fourth of the nation's science and engineering workforce will retire by the end of this decade. At the same time, although a decline in college enrollments is reversing, enrollments in engineering are essentially flat.
How will we fill the employment gap? Where will we find the next generation of technological leaders?
The answer lies right here in the Junior Museum.
We must protect and nurture the natural love of discovery in our nation's children. Our task, as educators, technological leaders, and concerned citizens must be to develop strategies to discover and nurture new talent — particularly in those segments of the population which remain stubbornly underrepresented in technological fields — girls, African-American and Hispanic children, and children with disabilities.
We must engage students early in their school years, spark their imaginations, train their minds, teach them a love of learning and excellent performance, instill in them self-discipline, mentor them, and find and showcase role models for them to emulate.
Our national future depends upon how we — institutions and individuals — face this challenge.
I am particularly proud of the work Rensselaer is doing to help local students receive the education they will need to be our next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and technologically proficient leaders.
I am gratified that the Junior Museum has opened its doors to Rensselaer faculty and students seeking a way to share their skills and knowledge with the city's children. And, I am proud that such a large — and growing — number of Rensselaer's finest faculty members are taking this opportunity to create wonderful exhibits here at the Junior Museum.
Situated, as it is, halfway between the city and the university, the Junior Museum is a fertile meeting ground where eager young minds can be nurtured and where faculty and students can express their desire to serve the community and the next generation.
I began my remarks with the words of Rachel Carson. I would like to close by quoting her again, this time from the posthumously published book, The Sense of Wonder.
"If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in."
If this nation is to maintain its leadership position in a world driven by technology and science, we must keep the joy and wonder of discovery alive in our young children.
To all the faculty and students of Rensselaer who are committed to this grand undertaking, and to the educators, staff, administrators, and volunteers of the Junior Museum, I say thank you for all you do. This is important work.
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.