Op-ed: The New Polytechnic: Preparing to Lead in the Digital Economy
Think about what is going on right now, all around you. There are satellites above us collecting data on air movements, sensors below us collecting data on ground movements, and cameras all around us collecting data on our movements. Medical devices are measuring heartbeats, and communication devices are receiving and sending tweets, emails, text messages, and GPS signals.
Data is being generated by each of us, about each of us, and collected all around each of us. It is the new natural resource of the 21st century. As with all valuable resources, it is important how we generate it, how we mine it, how we manage it, how we preserve it, and how we connect it.
This extraordinarily rapid expansion in the creation, availability, and interconnectivity of data from multiple sources, and the ever more powerful analytical and computational capacity that is generating new information from this deluge of data, is causing a significant transformation globally in the way we make discoveries, make decisions, make products, make connections and, ultimately, make progress. It is altering all aspects of curriculum and research at universities such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
The ability to aggregate, integrate, validate, structure, and fully use the burgeoning mass of information available will define success in this data-driven future – including for universities.
A new way of working and learning is required – what I have called the “New Polytechnic” – collaborating across disciplines and sectors and regions to harness the power of these tools and technologies to address the key intersecting challenges and opportunities of our time: in energy security, health, food, water, and national security, as well as the linked challenges of climate change and allocation of scarce resources so critical to our future.
In the “New Polytechnic,” universities must collaborate more effectively with businesses and governments to link the capabilities of advanced information technologies, communications, and networking – to the life sciences, and the physical, materials, environmental, social, cognitive, and computational sciences.
We also must prepare the next generation to succeed and lead in this new world. Students need to acquire new skills for this digitally interconnected environment, including the ability to “translate” between and among disciplines and sectors. They must learn to operate effectively and ethically in virtual communities, immersive environments, and in blended worlds.
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we are transforming ourselves to develop and use these new tools and technologies so that our faculty and students can apply them to answer the great global challenges.
We are incorporating data literacy across the curriculum, and throughout our research. We are using digitally created immersive environments and multiplayer games, and artificially intelligent characters to teach and to learn.
We launched The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications – or The Rensselaer IDEA – bringing together talents and strengths in web science, high-performance computing, cognitive computing, data science and predictive analytics, and immersive technologies – and linking them to applications at the interface of engineering and the physical, life, and social sciences.
In addition, we now have the most powerful university-based supercomputer at a private American academic institution; IBM’s Watson computer has enrolled at Rensselaer to expand its cognitive computing skills; a Rensselaer professor is leading the U.S. in a global effort – the Research Data Alliance – to enable scientists to access, combine, and preserve research data; and we have partnered with Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine to push the boundaries of data-driven health research.
Interlinking all of these components and more, we are taking an interdisciplinary approach that will impact research and teaching in powerful new ways. We are educating our students – the next generation of discoverers, innovators, and entrepreneurs – to make a difference in this context. We are modeling the future.
The great universities of the 21st century will remain the physical crossroads where creative people interact across the disciplines and great ideas emerge from these connections. However, in this new digital era, the interconnections will be more global, the pace more rapid, the scale more complex, and the opportunities to change the world more immediate.