The New Polytechnic: A Dynamic Paradigm for the Modern Technological Education

Category: University Events
October, 2015
EMPAC Theater

State of the Institute Address

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

Good afternoon and welcome back to all our alumni and alumnae. Congratulations, especially, to the Class of 1965, celebrating your 50-year reunion.

Thank you for joining us for the State of the Institute, and for the Alumni Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

I am certain that many of you are amazed at the ways the Institute has been transformed since you graduated. I am certain that you, also, are warmed by a certain familiar energy on the faces of our students—the same energy you remember on the faces of your friends during your years here.

Rensselaer students, fully engaged in our founding mission, “the application of science to the common purposes of life,” always have had energy, ambition, creativity, and purpose to spare. When one considers the achievements of the alumni we will honor today—in fields that range from the fundamental science of light, to brilliant lighting design for television, to new methods of imaging in medicine—it is clear that Rensselaer educates men and women who perceive possibilities others have overlooked, and make them realities—and who help the world to see in new ways.

Today, as we anticipate the 200th anniversary of our founding, in 2024, we are re-envisioning what a modern technological education should be, and transforming the university for its third century. We are moving to being even more influential in innovations in teaching and learning, in the global impact of our research, and, especially, in the lives of our students.

To understand our journey, and where Rensselaer is going, it might be helpful to look back, briefly, over the past 15-plus years. When I took the helm of Rensselaer in 1999, the Institute was not fully living up to its great legacy as the source of many of the leaders and technologies that shaped this nation, and, indeed, the world.

There were quantitative and factual markers of inertia, such as research awards to the faculty that had remained flat through the 1990s, the lack of new academic and research facilities, and the fact that student housing had not been refurbished in decades. There were qualitative signs of stagnation, too, such as academic programs that lacked context and cohesion.

Determined to enable Rensselaer to reach its promise and potential—to become a world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact—I posed five key questions to the Rensselaer community in my inaugural address:

  • First, what defines the intellectual core in key disciplines at Rensselaer?
  • Second, in these disciplines, are we in a leadership position?
  • Third, if we are not in a leadership position, do we have the underlying strengths and capabilities necessary to move rapidly into a position of primacy, with the proper focus and investment?
  • Fourth, are there areas that are so vital that we must create a presence in them in order to stand in the community of world-class universities? I suggested three such areas, two of which were built on existing strengths—information technology, and applied mathematics—and one of which—biotechnology—represented a new direction for Rensselaer.
  • And finally, what must we be willing to transform—or to give up—in order to focus our resources and our energies to create the impact we envision?

I promised that, together, the Rensselaer community would develop a Rensselaer Plan that would answer these questions, steer our choices, and capture our sense of what Rensselaer could be. Some people were fearful that an effort to revitalize and expand our research endeavor would detract from the superb undergraduate education we offered. However, our Plan made it clear that research and education potentiate each other—particularly when the young men and women we are educating expect to break new ground in their fields. Guided by the Rensselaer Plan, later refreshed as the Rensselaer Plan 2024, we put into place the people, programs, platforms, and partnerships that have sparked a renaissance at Rensselaer.

We have invested heavily in elevating and strengthening the student experience, and the outcomes for our graduates—in part, by building and renovating student housing and classrooms—as well as by adding an important platform that supports mind, body, and spirit for our varsity athletes, and, indeed, for all of our students: the East Campus Athletic Village (ECAV).

The campus also has been transformed by state-of-the-art research platforms, and associated programs, that include the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, which surrounds us; the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies; and the Center for Computational Innovations, the root of a remarkable computational ecosystem here at Rensselaer, which includes the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university, as well as the major cognitive computing platform, Watson—which you may remember from the game show Jeopardy!, where in 2011, it vanquished the best human champions.

We have prepared Rensselaer for leadership in areas of research that are of fundamental significance in the 21st century by focusing on “signature thrusts” in…

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

We have hired over 330 new tenured and tenure-track faculty members—among them star faculty, as part of constellations of senior and junior faculty, and students, in promising areas of multidisciplinary research—including biotechnology and the life sciences; computational science and engineering— broadly writ—including data science; and media, the arts, science, and technology. These investments have both elevated our profile as a major technological research university, and strengthened our undergraduate and graduate curricula—with new degree programs and new academic concentrations.

Among them are new areas of focus in the biological sciences, including a concentration in Neuroscience and a doctoral program in Biochemistry and Biophysics.

In our school of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, we have added degree offerings designed to address complex social challenges and opportunities. These include both graduate and undergraduate degree programs in Cognitive Science; a master’s program in Human-Computer Interaction; a doctoral program in the Electronic Arts, as well our superb undergraduate programs in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences; in Design, Innovation, and Society; and in Sustainability Studies. And we have changed our focus in Economics to reflect what we do best here—to make it more quantitative, as well as behaviorally focused.

To prepare our students to help shape the future, we have created new Master of Science degree programs at the Lally School of Management: in Technology Commercialization & Entrepreneurship, in Quantitative Finance & Risk Analytics, in Supply Chain Management, and in Business Analytics. In fact, we feel that data literacy is becoming so crucial to success in every field that we are incorporating data analytics throughout the undergraduate curriculum, beginning in mathematics courses, in a program we call DATUM, or Data Analytics Through Undergraduate Mathematics.

At Rensselaer@Hartford, we are taking a blended learning—(combined online and residential) approach to education for working professionals, including executive education.

In the School of Engineering, we have recognized great interest on the part of our students in advanced manufacturing, thanks to an explosion of exciting new technologies that include 3-D printing, advanced robotics, and advanced composites. We are creating the next evolution of our Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory, or the MILL, to enable our students to explore these technologies—and, in addition to the fundamental instruction we long have offered to undergraduates in process and product design, we have created a graduate-level certificate program in Advanced Manufacturing.

As a result of these aggregated accomplishments, the number of students applying to join the freshman class has well more than tripled, as have sponsored research awards and expenditures. We have enrolled nearly 1,400 freshmen this fall.

Building on our successes, today, we are continuing to transform Rensselaer, while becoming even more transformative in the world at large. We embrace our identity as a polytechnic, which comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts”—and are redefining Rensselaer within a paradigm we call The New Polytechnic. The New Polytechnic rubric is guided by two factors: first, humanity faces global and interconnected challenges surrounding our supplies of food, water, energy, and a changing climate; human health and the mitigation of disease; national and global security; the allocation of valuable natural resources; and our need for a sustainable infrastructure. Clearly, such challenges cannot be addressed by a single discipline, sector, nation, or geographic region working alone.

The second factor comprises the advanced tools and technologies that are affording us new insights into our world, and new ways to navigate and manage that world.

These challenges and opportunities demand…

  • in other words, that we educate the next generation of leaders for depth in their specific domains, since you have got to know something to do something—and for the breadth that allows them to perceive the connections among domains that initially appear unrelated.
  • that a modern technological education, therefore, be rooted in crucial disciplines, while sustaining a fresh collaborative endeavor across disciplines, sectors, and geographies,
  • and that we serve as a great crossroads of human talent, and use advanced tools and technologies to the unite a multiplicity of perspectives that extremely talented people bring to Rensselaer.

Moreover, our students must develop intellectual agility, a new kind of multicultural sophistication, and a global view, if they are to be the leaders of tomorrow we intend them to be.

Towards that end, our comprehensive approach to the student experience at Rensselaer—Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS—helps to foster these attributes—by offering the support and the opportunities to encourage intellectual and personal exploration. CLASS is predicated on clustering as the mechanism for student growth and transformation. The clustering is both residential and developmentally-based. All first and second-year students live in tight-knit communities centered in their residence halls, with live-in Assistant Deans and a Faculty Dean of the Residential Commons, and in the Greek Commons.

Our students also are supported in their freshman years by a Dean of the First-Year Experience, and then by Class Deans who are assigned to, and work with, each undergraduate class from the sophomore through the senior years. Such clustering, including affinity clustering, allows us to offer opportunities designed precisely for where our students are in their college careers—opportunities such as our Emerging Leaders Program for freshmen, and the Sophomore Career Experience.

Through both CLASS programming, and their regular academic experiences, we work hard to encourage our students to develop their own ideas about the world around them. This year, for the first time, we have selected a theme for the entire Rensselaer community to consider: resilient leadership for a more resilient world. We are asking both our students and our faculty to consider what that means; and how to foster flexibility and inventiveness in their work and professional and personal lives—with the ultimate goal of building resilience into economic, social, and physical systems on a global scale.

In the “Inquiry” courses, as we call them, that we have designed for freshmen through the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, or HASS, the subjects range widely, from a consideration of whether humans are rational, to an exploration of environmental controversies. However, each course encourages critical thinking across the disciplines, with a focus on the ethical issues involved.

Many other aspects of Rensselaer pedagogy encourage our students to engage with new perspectives, such as our new Art_X @ Rensselaer initiative—which is designed to help all of our students to see the art in science, and the science in art—and then to use this understanding to think, discover, design, and create in new ways.

While we have many arts courses that emanate from HASS, Art_X is not about art appreciation, per se. Instead, Art_X focuses on the intersection and union of heretofore disparate disciplines—using ideas such as the “Golden Mean” that connect the visual arts, architecture, science, and engineering.

Art_X includes the incorporation of artistic and aesthetic concepts throughout the curriculum—including in the design classes in our School of Engineering, required of all engineers—which now emphasize the relationship of—and sometimes conflict between—function and beauty.

Across the board, our teaching methods are extremely innovative. Using advances arising out of Rensselaer research, we employ tools such as multi-player mixed reality classes, the gamification of concepts, and interaction with artificially intelligent digital characters to speed learning. For example, in The Mandarin Project, which teaches the Chinese language and culture, students are immersed in that culture in virtual scenarios, such as in a Beijing tea house, within a semester-long game narrative, which soon will include virtual characters arising from Rensselaer artificial intelligence research.

Another example of innovation in teaching and learning at Rensselaer is Geo Explorer, a mixed reality and mobile game integrated into a course that teaches the design, testing, and inspection of flood protection systems, which is being developed by Professors Tarek Abdoun and Victoria Bennett of our Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Geo Explorer is addressing one of the great challenges in engineering education: the fact that students are not—and cannot be—out in the field under extreme conditions, such as hurricanes, experiencing directly the practical consequences of engineering decisions. With Geo Explorer, however, they can experience those conditions and consequences virtually—and become better engineers for it. By the way, Professor Abdoun was instrumental in working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in elucidating why the New Orleans levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, and in designing better levees.

An even more transformative approach to our undergraduate education, which we will be phasing in over the next two years, is the Summer Arch. With the Summer Arch, undergraduate students will spend the summer after their sophomore year in junior-level classes at Rensselaer on the campus, benefitting from the focused attention of both their professors and our Student Life staff, as well as from unique cultural experiences in the Capital Region (and in Art_X) that can only occur during the summer season.

Then they will leave the campus for a semester during their normal junior year—either fall or spring— to pursue co-ops, internships, research, and international experiences with greater flexibility. We will encourage them to go abroad—and to have the ineffably transformative experience of immersing themselves in another culture. The Summer Arch is an important pivot point to students’ upper class years at Rensselaer—and to the development of intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view.

As The New Polytechnic, we encourage such freedom to explore, unfettered by domain boundaries, in research, as well, in part by creating platforms and centers that encourage groundbreaking collaborations. EMPAC, for example, is not merely one of the most technologically advanced performing arts centers in the world, it also is the nexus for multidisciplinary research in cognitive computing, high-performance computing, cognitive science, architecture, acoustics, haptics, and immersive technologies of all kinds. And the innovations developed here for the performing arts have applications in other fields as well. For example, Professor Christopher Carothers, Director of our Center for Computational Innovations and an expert in high-performance computing, has collaborated with EMPAC artist Marc Downie to apply a live coding environment, that Mr. Downie developed for the performing arts, to an enormous data set, which was then explored interactively, using advanced computer graphics, yielding some unexpected insights. Given the volume of data that humankind is generating about itself, tools such as this that allow data to viewed as a landscape for active investigation could prove invaluable.

I also urge you to stay tuned, also, for an announcement next month about the new Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory or CISL@ EMPAC—which will employ the capabilities of EMPAC and our faculty in many different disciplines—in order to devise new ways to combine multi-sensory, multi-modal inputs with cognitive agents to assist collaborators working on different aspects of the same project. Initially, CISL will focus on developing Situations Rooms that bridge human perception with artificially intelligent systems to create an immersive, interactive environment—enabling a cognitive design studio, a cognitive boardroom, a cognitive medical diagnosis room, or a cognitive classroom. The goal is to vastly improve group decision-making in many different fields—allowing the application of greater wisdom and understanding to the “common purposes of life.”

As The New Polytechnic, as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), we work very hard to enable our faculty and our students to perceive new means of considering the hard problems, to choose brilliant collaborators their own and in other fields in order to address those problems, and to discern new opportunities within them—so that they can bring the world into focus in ways that improve lives on a grand scale.

I thank all of you for your advice, your interest, and your support of this grand and beautiful endeavor.

Thank you.