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Family Weekend Presidential Welcome

“Catalyzing Personal, Professional, Cultural, and Social Growth”

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

EMPAC Theater
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Good morning and welcome to Family Weekend at Rensselaer—and a special welcome to the families of our freshmen, who comprise the extraordinary Class of 2017.

I also would like to welcome the members of the Parents Council with us this morning. The governing body of the Parents at Rensselaer Association, the Parents Council assists the Office of the Student Experience in making life here both wonderful and a personal growth experience for our students.

This is an exciting time to be a Rensselaer student. As you may have heard on other occasions, over the last 14 years we have transformed the Institute, under a vision set forth in The Rensselaer Plan. Our plan was unusual in that is was holistic, encompassing all aspects of life at Rensselaer, with the goal of transforming Rensselaer into a top-tier technological research university.

As anyone who has ever devised a blueprint or a mission statement or a list of recommendations can tell you, our plan also was unusual in that it was realized.

There are many ways to measure the fulfillment of our vision. We created remarkable platforms under this plan, including the building that surrounds us, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center or EMPAC, which bridges the world of art and the world of science and technology.

We also built world-class platforms in our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), and our Center for Computational Innovations, or CCI. The CCI is home to the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university. I will say a few more words about this remarkable machine in a moment.

There are other measures of success as well. In recent months, we have attracted distinguished partners to Rensselaer that include old friends launching new endeavors, such as IBM, and new collaborators, such as the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Last month, we were ranked 41st among 281 national research universities by US News and World Report. In addition, our “selectivity” rank in terms of our students was at a record-high (39th).

Indeed, the clearest evidence of our achievements is the enthusiasm with which extremely talented young men and women now pursue a Rensselaer education. Applications to the freshman class have more than tripled over the last 14 years.

And because so many admitted students chose Rensselaer, we have enrolled the largest freshman class in Rensselaer history, 1411 students. They are a very high-achieving group. Over ten percent of the class received a perfect 800 SAT score in critical reading, mathematics, or writing.

And they are not merely extraordinary in their academics. The Class of 2017 includes a number of entrepreneurs, a two-time winner of national honors in sand castle construction, and a champion race car driver. Clearly, the kinetic energy of the Troy campus has been boosted by many Joules.

This class also includes 95 legacies, or students who are related to Rensselaer alumni and alumnae—an indication that people who receive an education here form an enduring bond with us. We hope and expect that your students will do the same.

Last year, we set ambitious new goals for Rensselaer in anticipation of the bicentennial of our founding in 2024. With The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we shift focus from transforming Rensselaer to becoming even more of a transformative force—in our teaching and learning, in the lives of our students, and in the global impact of our research. The implementation of the plan is well underway, and I would like to summarize where we are.

Let us begin with the teaching and learning that takes place here. One of the great challenges we face as a university is the challenge of educating the most cyber-savvy generation of students the world has ever seen.

Of course, our history itself readies us for creativity on this front. Pedagogical innovation characterized Rensselaer from its very start in 1824. The traditions of that time had students listening passively to lectures. Rensselaer broke decisively with that pattern, and instead asked students to prove and expand their knowledge through demonstrations and experiments. Under The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we continue this tradition by giving all undergraduate students the opportunity for research and independent study, and we are creating an Honors Program for seniors who demonstrate particular promise in research.

Rensselaer also pioneered the “flipped classroom”—in which students first learn the basic subject matter outside of class and then come to class for problem-solving and experimentation—long before online educator Sal Khan of the Khan Academy began advocating for the same switch.

Now, we will be using online approaches to enhance the Rensselaer experience in undergraduate courses. We intend to incorporate advances in computational science and engineering developed here into online enhancement of learning—including the Semantic Web, a set of technologies and a movement, pioneered by Rensselaer Professor Jim Hendler, to promote common data formats on the World Wide Web. The Semantic Web allows unstructured and structured data on the Internet to be accessed, correlated, validated, and turned into truly exciting insights.

Our students are benefitting from other revolutions in pedagogy as well, including the gamification of courses, the mixed reality classroom, and interaction with artificially intelligent synthetic characters. All three are coming together in a program called the Mandarin Project, which uses a game with a sustained storyline, in which students participate as characters, to engage and motivate them to learn the Mandarin language and Chinese culture.

The Mandarin Project is moving into our new Emergent Reality Lab, a massive mixed reality space. Ultimately, it will include synthetic characters arising out of Rensselaer breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, which will interact directly with students in the course.

As you can see, we connect research and teaching here in every possible way. We believe that the best way to help the brilliant young people in our charge understand that they really do have the power to change the world, is to engage them in the investigations taking place here—research that addresses the world’s great challenges in energy, water, and food security; national and global security; human health, climate impacts, and the allocation of scarce natural resources.

I do not want to spend a great deal of time describing this research, at the expense of explaining the remarkable support we offer our students. However, I do want to say a few words about one new research initiative.

As you know, the incredible volume of data being generated by everything from the Mars Curiosity Rover to running shoes with built-in sensors holds the potential to radically improve the human ability to monitor, understand, and shape our world. Rensselaer is rich in distinguished faculty who are doing groundbreaking research in all aspects of computation and data science—including high-performance computing, cognitive computing, web science, data analytics, visualization, and immersive technologies.

This past spring, we launched The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or The Rensselaer IDEA, to bring together our talents in every computational field. We are educating many of the best incipient computer scientists in the world—and The Rensselaer IDEA will offer new opportunities for them, as well as enable student and faculty researchers in every discipline to harness new technologies for discovery and innovation.

In partnership with IBM, we recently put in place the remarkable new supercomputer I mentioned earlier. After a naming contest, won by a student and an alumnus, we call it the Advanced Multiprocessing Optimized System, or AMOS, in honor of the academic founder of Rensselaer, Amos Eaton.

AMOS has a capacity of 1.1 petaflops—or over a quadrillion calculations per second. This is the fourth most powerful university-based supercomputer in the United States and twelfth in the world. And AMOS is not just speedy, but also massively networked and equipped with advanced parallel storage, making it an ideal tool for Big Data and data analytics at the petascale.

Possibly even more extraordinary, AMOS is available as a learning tool for undergraduates—large numbers of them. It is very unusual for undergraduates to have access to such a powerful supercomputer. However, this is the essence of a Rensselaer education: hands on, and minds on, all the way.

AMOS also has a roommate worth noting, Watson. Watson is the remarkable IBM cognitive computing system that used its natural language processing ability and powerful inference engines to vanquish the best human champions at Jeopardy!

We are the first university in the world to receive this technology from IBM, which sent Watson here so that our experts in artificial intelligence and cognitive science can expand its capacities.

The combination of AMOS and Watson, utterly unique to Rensselaer and to any university, is truly powerful. Our scientists are going to use what they learn from the cognitive computer to expand the possibilities of agent-based modeling—or computational models that can simulate the effects, on a system, of the decision-making of individuals. And they will do this at the scale of AMOS.

Because the great global challenges are social as much as they are physical, the human implications of merging cognitive computing with supercomputing are enormous. We will be able to incorporate the element of human decision-making into economic models, into the planning for natural disasters, weather modeling, pharmaceutical development, advanced manufacturing processes, or into the design of a really smart, smart grid.

The Rensselaer IDEA is intended to enable applications in fields that range from public policy, to built environments, to engineering design, to basic scientific research, to business management.

Health care applications are likely to prove particularly important, in that they will allow us to use data to develop predictive models of disease and more effective treatments. This year, we established a new partnership with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai that will offer Rensselaer a treasure trove of clinical data. The partnership also will enable us to translate, into clinical practice, the many breakthroughs in biotechnology arising out of Rensselaer research—this is an area in which we are particularly strong.

This collaboration offers Rensselaer students exciting new educational opportunities. Here is but one example: Rensselaer sophomores will have the opportunity to apply early to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, one of the nation’s best medical schools. Assured of a place, they then will be free to pursue any passion as an undergraduate, from engineering advanced materials to creating digital art, on the way to becoming a physician. Students also will have unique summer internship opportunities at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in areas of their strength.

However, while we work hard to expand educational opportunities for our students, we are well aware that education does not take place merely in the classroom, but also in the interactions our students have with each other, with faculty and administrators, and with the community around them. Our Clustered, Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS, is designed to foster these connections for all students, in ever-widening circles.

CLASS begins, as you know, with our award-winning First Year Experience, which eases freshmen into the demands and joys of campus life. Since we understand the significance of a home away from home, CLASS encourages a sense of belonging through small residential communities—supported by residential deans—including a dean for off-campus students, for students in our Greek system, and for graduate students. CLASS also helps an entire class to cohere as a group, through time-based clustering—with Class Deans who work with our undergraduates from their sophomore year through their senior year.

CLASS also includes academically-linked programs to bridge the classroom and the students’ living environment. And the many programs that emerge from CLASS recognize the different stages of university life. For example, our award-winning Sophomore Career Experience is designed as an introduction to professional life that can help students make more strategic choices in their studies as upperclassmen.

We really want to convey to Rensselaer families how exciting CLASS is, so the CLASS core themes offered the inspiration for the activities this weekend. They are personal development, professional development, cultural development, leadership development, community, and “communiversity”—or being a good neighbor to the City of Troy.

And to encourage an even greater sense of affinity in our students, we are allowing them to build their own living and learning cohorts based on these CLASS core themes—or particular global challenges such as environmental stewardship. For example, our Leadership Houses allow students to participate in a truly exciting ongoing discourse about governance, management, courage, and inspiration.

Ultimately, CLASS is designed to develop those personal qualities most likely to lead to wonderful careers and full lives: intellectual agility, multi-cultural sophistication, and a global view.

Of course, we do not take full credit for that agility, or sophistication, or awareness of the world at large. The seeds for these traits were planted by our students’ mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents and cousins. The families of our students ensure that they are full of potential when they arrive.

They will be more extraordinary when they leave. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is a magnificent crossroads, where brilliant and adventuresome people meet. Their interactions catalyze the personal, professional, cultural, and social growth of every student—and, indeed, every member of this community.

I thank the families of our students for entrusting us with the marvelous young men and women whom you love. Thank you for joining us this weekend. And thank you, as well, for urging these rare creatures to pick up the laundry off the floor!

I hope you enjoy the rest of Family Weekend.


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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Page updated: 11/12/13, 10:58 AM
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