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The Quiet Crisis:
America's Economic and National Security at Risk

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

SCUP 2010 North Atlantic One-Day Conference
EMPAC Studio 2
RPI, Troy, New York

Friday, November 19, 2010


First, I would like to join Ben in welcoming you to Rensselaer and to EMPAC. In many ways, this facility represents what this conference is all about:

Bringing together science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with the values and qualities offered by the arts, so that we can enable, expand, and explore new vistas of knowledge.

It is urgent that we achieve this goal. I am sure that all of you are familiar with the basic concerns that are outlined by the Quiet Crisis. The gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics capabilities that our nation faces as a generation of professionals retires — a generation inspired and supported in the wake of Sputnik — has been coming upon us over many years, and it will take a concerted effort to respond effectively to this crisis.

We understand what was at stake: jobs, economic health, and the vibrancy of our communities — each of which depend upon the capacity of our citizens to create value. The benefits that come from facilitating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are connected on a deep level with the technological culture in which we live: a culture presented with an array of challenges — health care, national and homeland security, energy security, and climate change, not to mention emergent environmental challenges such as the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — each of which require solutions rooted in scientific discovery and technological innovation.

Where will the talent we need come from? The statistics are daunting. For every new Ph.D. in the physical sciences, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, the U.S. graduates 50 new MBAs and 18 lawyers; more than half of those with bachelor of science degrees still enter careers having nothing to do with science. The ACT testing service says only 17 percent of high school seniors are both interested in STEM majors and have attained math proficiency.

Certainly, we need to focus more on developing talent and providing research opportunities. But, to close the gap between our needs and the projected supply of STEM professionals, we also will need to take new approaches to developing human potential, given the major shifts in demographics we are experiencing. In particular, our hope lies in our ability to attract and engage women, minorities and others in our society who are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

If we succeed, the U.S. can look forward to having the well-educated people it needs to lead in a global economy that will be much more complex and technologically demanding.

Now, STEM has been part of the public discourse for some years. Now, however, we are beginning to speak of STEAM, which brings in the arts. This is not to say that, heretofore, the arts have been ignored. Even the earliest STEM programs included communications, music, dance, and more — especially as concerned professionals worked to excite and invite younger students into the sciences and related fields. But explicit inclusion of the arts with STEM to create STEAM represents a recognition of the value the arts bring to our achieving our goal of renewing our technological foundations.

But STEAM looks forward in other ways. Given the holistic nature of the challenges we face, we need approaches that incorporate new tools and new ways of thinking — approaches that reach across the spectrum of science, technology, and the arts, and at their nexus. We need people who can think and act and work across the disciplinary boundaries.

What science and technology bring to the issues our society faces is a creativity undergirded by an exacting, logical, quantitative perspective. These disciplines, in looking into hidden corners, are seeking clear answers derived by reliable and repeatable processes, energized by sometimes sudden insight.

What the arts bring is less tangible, because artistic inspiration defies quantification. The pathways of the human mind remain, in great measure, uncharted. Yet, there is research in neuroscience that attempts to explain insight — that moment when an artist or a scientist or an engineer says, “Aha! I get it!”

Such moments are not merely a function of the right side of the brain, or the left side. Rather, they involve an intricate dance across the cerebral cortex. Although an insight seems to come from “nowhere,” the brain carefully prepares itself for such a breakthrough.

First, the parts of the brain involved with executive control activate, and the brain starts “computing” — looking for answers in all the relevant places. When it “finds” the answer, gamma rhythm, the brain’s highest electrical frequency, spikes. It is thought that this results from neurons binding with one another across the cortex, drawing themselves together into a new network, which is then able to enter the conscious mind. Insight requires the brain to make a set of distant and unprecedented connections. This is a suitable metaphor for what we at Rensselaer are working to achieve with our transdisciplinary programs and with EMPAC. We are inspired by the desire to synthesize ideas across disciplines.

Our students understand that the boundaries are between disciplines are artificial; they know they use their whole brains to gain understanding and insight. Many of them come in the door desiring to join their music, their poetry, and their visual arts with science and technology. In a special way, EMPAC responds to these needs of Rensselaer students, who want to have creative outlets, places where they can perform, experience, and produce art, and where they can discover, design, and uncover.

EMPAC was built to serve them, but it is also part of a grander mission at Rensselaer: the development of leaders.

The best leaders are people with wide interests. They confidently join with other, differently talented people. They have vision and can see connections across a broad cultural and intellectual milieu. As leaders, they develop the ability to listen to those with different views, to evaluate with their heads and hearts, to express their ideas persuasively, and to respond with both good sense and empathy.

We critically need such people, but the development of intellectually curious, broadly educated, and respectful leaders shifts in and out of fashion. When there is an emphasis on return on investment and measurable results, our culture leans more toward specialization. We certainly offer a ground in the fundamentals of specialized disciplines here at Rensselaer, but we also have set out to change culture through culture. That is, our transdisciplinary endeavors are designed to engage with society and impact it at a variety of levels, in a variety of ways.

The challenges and the opportunities that we now face as a society cannot yield easily to disciplines in isolation. As rigorous and demanding as education in STEM disciplines is, and must be, the importance of our building skills in our students intrinsic to the arts has become more and more evident. For instance, we know that the real work ahead will require people who are comfortable with, and capable of, working as team members. This implies a need for STEM professionals who can reach across boundaries to others. They need to have strong communication skills, empathy, new tools for their imaginations, and the ability to find new perspectives. We know that these leadership capabilities can be developed best in an environment that includes the arts.

The arts also provide new opportunities to get complex points across, and one of the marvels of a place like EMPAC is how it broadens the range of sensory experiences that can be used to enable people to share technological insights, and to develop deeper understandings of phenomena that are considered more abstract.

For instance, in a film called “Molecules to the Max,” Rensselaer combined state-of-the-art, 3-D animation with essential concepts of molecules, chemical bonds, and molecular dynamics to enthrall, delight — and educate — middle school students. So without sacrificing any rigor, sometimes dry textbooks lessons can be replaced by immersive, dynamic presentations.

There is yet another advantage of going from STEM to STEAM. In the white spaces between disciplines — the transdisciplinary spaces — much remains to be explored and developed. So bringing people with different mindsets, perspectives, and knowledge together creates new opportunities for insight that is truly at the leading edge. Whole new possibilities await us, and I think that transdisciplinary research and collaboration will provide some of the most startling and important developments of the century.

As an example, you just met Ben Chang. Ben’s expertise is gaming. Only a few years ago, this would not have been considered a serious focus for a technological research university. And it would not have fit into any one department.

We understand now that such work is a critical part of the future. Interactive gaming is making its way into curricula, with, for instance, MBA students building businesses in the safe environment of simulations that are designed for collaboration and “what if” experiments. We also have the capability to monitor the use of computer games and acquire detailed information on how learning takes place and, through that, insights into how the brain works. This is only one kind of serious gaming — there are many — across health, defense, and even the sciences themselves. It provides a perfect example of blending the STEM disciplines with the arts to create new knowledge. It demonstrates the value of teams with quite different knowledge and expertise working together.

Collaboration can happen at a more personal level that is no less important. This building gets attention, not just because it cannot be ignored, but also because it connects with people on a deep level. It entices; it invites; and it lures.

EMPAC triggers responses. Stand in the lobby. People ask questions. They express opinions. They share ideas. Of course, these conversations go beyond the lobby, reaching out into the world, provoking thought, and inspiring innovation.

The presence of EMPAC alone provides encouragement and inspiration. Even people who have never been to Troy, N.Y., are intrigued about EMPAC and its capabilities. This is what makes EMPAC so special — in the way it changes the perspectives of so many people, it is a natural catalyst for change. It offers new possibilities by actively blending capabilities: EMPAC is a powerful instrument for science and technology, and for the visualization of scientific problems.  It is also an artistic venue, designed for the senses. It is a bridge between the quantifiable — the photons, the sound waves and the data bytes that are the “stuff” of science and technology — and the unquantifiable — the beauty, the paradox, and the mystery — that the arts inspire in us.

For those who are innovative, EMPAC stands as a reminder of the importance of pushing the limits. Technologically, the different venues within this building are designed to stake out new territory in how we can reach and use the senses. They allow the use of virtual worlds, while one continues to work at human scale. At EMPAC, one can be surrounded by sound and be within an immersive animation in a way the mimics or expands on nature. One can use one’s natural sense of oneself — in physical space — to fit within the art or the experiment. And one can share one’s experiences, not by having someone look over his or her shoulder, but by sitting or walking or dancing through an installation or a simulation with others.

When Orson Welles first saw a film studio, he said, “This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!” I wonder what he would have said about EMPAC.

The new tools for research and expression here touch the senses and invite us in. EMPAC is a world-class performing arts center. But it is not solely a presentation space, and it is not limited to traditional electronic media. It includes photonics and haptics. It attracts artists, scientists and engineers on their own terms. They want to explore its capabilities, so they end up riding elevators together, walking down the same hallways and, perhaps, finding themselves in the same rooms, rubbing shoulders.

The program of EMPAC and proximity of its spaces invite curiosity, questions, and interest. What begins as, what a developmental psychologist might term, “parallel play” leads to understanding, mutuality of interest, and collaboration. We already have seen that there are instances when a scientist or engineer comes to understand that the artist may be the very person who can help illustrate or explore a technological concept. Conversely, artists, attracted by the light, noise, movement, or peculiar instruments of the scientist or engineer, can recognize new forms of expression.

Such interactions motivate talented, creative people of all types to build bridges. They find ways to translate their ideas, to share interests, and to develop a common language that allows deeper, more complex collaborations. Along the way, these very different communities begin to challenge and inspire each other, and new ideas explode.

We talk a lot about teamwork for the 21st century — people working together in multidisciplinary groups. Performance productions inherently involve teams and various disciplines: planning and management skills, working to deadlines, understanding audience responses or preferences — in effect, customer relationship management. As well, research is inherently collaborative. So EMPAC becomes a learning space for the very things that we want to reinforce in our students.

Sometimes scientists and engineers are left out of key conversations of our society because people do not expect them to think or act in nuanced ways. Artists sometimes are left out because they are not expected to think in purely quantitative or business-like ways. Scientists and artists, working together, can contribute more effectively to public discourse, and can appropriately influence important decisions. Science and technology are the concern of all our citizens, because they affect us all. Our society therefore needs scientists and engineers who are able to speak out, guide the public and establish policy — in short, serve as leaders. If Rensselaer graduates are to live up to this role, they must be not only technologically brilliant, but also articulate, broad-minded, and humane.

I am confident that EMPAC is helping our students grow into such leaders — while here and beyond — as they do important work. The challenges and possibilities they encounter here will help inspire them throughout their lives.

I have spoken about our society’s needs and the possibilities that are before us, and the importance of STEAM. You are gathered here today because you are involved deeply in finding new avenues for promoting STEAM within your institutions. I know that you, therefore, are very much interested in the “how” of STEM to STEAM. Many of the agenda items today will provide you with the chance to see, experience, and investigate. I would like to take this opportunity to suggest three ways that you might adapt and adopt what we have learned here at Rensselaer, in particular as we have pursued our, so far, 10-year journey, under the Rensselaer Plan.

First, it is important to demonstrate support at all levels for STEAM. Certainly, we at Rensselaer publicized our plan — which, from the beginning had a transdisplinary component — and we engaged, systematically in many conversations with students, faculty, staff, and the community. However, such leadership went beyond words. It required that we also take actions and create tangible evidence of our commitment and confidence in making the bold choice of transforming our institution to best fit the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Perhaps the most undeniable statement with regard to our commitment is this building itself — since it is both a suitable home for the best of the performing arts and an active and innovative locale for leading-edge research. Many of the aspects of this building are new, and, as you will hear, the criteria for success in its execution were especially demanding, pushing the limits of the state-of-the-art, with an eye ever on the future.

But even if one does not have the opportunity to demonstrate one’s commitment to STEAM with a building, it is important to find ways to make one’s support for STEAM visible and tangible. One approach we have taken at Rensselaer is providing an academic structure for transdisciplinary research, while maximizing human talent — through our creation of the Constellation. Our Constellation program builds on our traditional core strengths as a technological research university. Each Constellation is centered on an important research focal area. Each includes brilliant “star” faculty, who anchor multidisciplinary teams of senior faculty, junior faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates across key research thrusts.

Collectively, Constellation research both draws from and interlinks faculty in essentially all disciplines at Rensselaer. This has allowed us to strengthen traditional disciplines, branch into new arenas, develop exciting new academic offerings, seed new ideas, and hold the leading edge in specific research thrusts.

This approach is why our Tetherless World Research Constellation received particular notice last spring when the open government Website, “data.gov,” celebrated its first anniversary. U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra called the creation of data.gov “the birth of a community of innovators” and praised Professor James Hendler, specifically, who, with his fellow professors and students, has been using “Semantic Web” technology as a powerful new approach to analytical research, exploiting the vast amounts of information available from data.gov.

The Semantic Web was, in fact, created by Professor Hendler and Sir Tim Berners-Lee — commonly known as the inventor of the Worldwide Web. The Semantic Web provides a means to create fusion — out in the world — by making it possible for people of different disciplines, with different jargon and approaches, to become aware of and understand what others are doing. It catalyzes the spread of new ideas through the creation of Web language ontologies that allow researchers to “mash up” data from different sources.

Second, I am a firm believer that anyone who intends to lead and provide new answers must set up the conditions for innovative collaboration across disciplines. This is no simple task. Obviously, one needs to attract people of great talent and capability. One must give them the resources that they need — and one of those resources is a degree of administrative flexibility and freedom to take roads not taken.

Now, presumably, this is not controversial. Going into new areas should be the goal for any research university. One of the elements of The Rensselaer Plan, however, was intended to provide a level of focus by explicitly supporting arenas of investigation that promised to be of high potential–nanotechnology, biotechnology, simulation, and others. The thought here is that trying to take on too much, or randomly throwing together talent without any sort of framework, could lead to little. But developing a far-reaching framework stimulates interactions. If as much creativity is put into developing the context for research as is put into the research itself — including opportunities for working across disciplines — benefits will follow.

Once talent, resources, and focus have been garnered, then supporting innovative collaboration requires creating spaces, programs, and even casual opportunities for rich conversations between people who are likely to have intersecting goals.

Further, innovation is a social activity that can be blocked by lack of respect, lack of trust, or even professional jargon. Relationships do not just happen. They must be built, and people from varied disciplines need tools and education that enables listening, negotiation, understanding, and sharing. They also need to evolve common goals. This is what the Constellations foster.

We often are unaware of how, precisely, these goals might evolve as diverse people come together — if we knew exactly, it would not be leading edge. But we can follow approach that dates back at least as far as the Lyceum in Athens, by stimulating talented, curious, interested, and engaged people as they work to answer key questions and to find the unexplored territories.

After demonstrating support and taking all those actions that promote innovative collaboration, a third initiative is needed, based on our experience here at Rensselaer. We must reach, proactively, beyond the bounds of the university to work with those in the community, in government, and in industry — with people whose day-to-day work provides a constant stream of fresh challenges, needs, insights, and opportunities — so that we can discover ways make a difference on an ever larger scale.

Certainly, inviting people such as you here today represents one way in which Rensselaer reaches out to partner with others who can transform and amplify the work that we do. But we reach out in many other ways.

On Rensselaer campuses, you also will find a number of Centers of Excellence. These enrich our academic community and provide ideas and relationships that make the boundary of our university semi-permeable — providing both the security of the world of experiment and the potential for growing ideas in the wide world.

Of course, it is also important for us — as we work to be an organization that has impact, influence, and involvement — that we contribute to the commonweal by carefully and thoughtfully joining with others in public service and public discourse. We seek to participate in forums with global significance, such as those supported by the World Economic Forum in Davos. And members of the Rensselaer community share our analyses and insights through problem-solving and exploratory organizations, such as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. These are global and national activities. But a great deal can be accomplished on a local level as well. Your universities probably have faculty and staff who share their time and expertise as school board members and leaders of local service organizations. These experiences and the relationships they create are a resource for weaving the values and insights of your university into the larger community. This can be rewarding because, often, it is within our own communities that we most clearly are able to see results from our efforts.

While, as we work to respond to the Quiet Crisis, we do need to continue to excite and invite students of all ages, we also need to look beyond the early years and maintain the engagement with students as they grow and face a world of distractions and, increasingly, the needs of their adult lives. This means we must create an environment full of opportunities, inspiration, and resources that will keep the best of the best engaged.

We can do this by taking advantage of all that the arts have to offer to broaden and inspire those who see themselves within the STEM disciplines. These goals are well within the purview and the capabilities of academic institutions that understand and commit to taking on these responsibilities.

Doing so is important. Unless we prepare people of talent and capability to take on the complex, technological challenges we face, we risk our prosperity and our national security. Creating a common ground at our universities to bring together people of diverse disciplines provides part of the solution. As you will hear more fully, at Rensselaer, through programs and venues, we are bringing together those with complementary skills and capabilities, and then supporting their collaboration.

Because of your presence here I know that this is something that is important to you. I hope that, by sharing some of the perceptions and experiences of Rensselaer — in particular in tangibly supporting STEAM, setting up conditions for innovative collaboration, and reaching out to the wider world — we will provide some guidance and ideas on how you might execute against these objectives at your own institutions.

Now, I would welcome any questions or comments that you might have.


Source citations are available from 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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