Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

The RPI story

Articulating a clear vision

  • The RPI Story: Development of a technology-rich learning environment
    - Gary A. Gabriele, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, RPI, and Division Director, Engineering Education and Centers, NSF
    - Sharon Roy, Director, Academic and Research Computing, RPI
    - Brad Lister, Director, Center for Innovation in UG Education, RPI
    - Don Millard, Director, Academy of Electronic Media, RPI

Systematic institutional transformation began with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and it defined a problem: their students were not fully engaged in the learning process. The leadership team's goal was to create a new environment for interactive student learning that was deeply embedded in hands-on, minds-on activities. The team created an environment where students would learn how to learn rather than using a content-focused approach. Their vision embraced the long-standing culture at the institution which is based on the premise that students should learn by doing: for the purpose of instructing persons. . .in the application of science to the common purposes of life. They created a vision of an interactive learning environment using technology as a means to achieving a goal with the following characteristics:

  • having a broad mandate
  • comprehensive
  • intellectual
  • engaging
  • having opportunity to improve
  • open to experimentation
  • risk-taking
  • allowing for diversity.

There was broad discussion about the ntaure of "vision" as a springboard for reform. The workshop participants reviewed their own vision statements from their application materials. In creating an effective vision statement, a team considers the institutional mission, improves on the present, reviews the statement's ability to be achieved, and takes advantage of available opportunities.

Moving from vision to strategies

Once developed, RPI's vision of bringing in technology to promote interactive learning was put into place. Curricular issues drove the implementation of technology. For instance, specific "touch-points" were identified that described the interaction of technology with the curriculum:

    1. use of technology (e.g. software) as a tool to find solutions
    2. use of tools to understand how design issues might follow
    3. a good understanding of these tools in order to manipulate them.

Pedagogical issues determined the classroom design, which resulted in the studio classroom. Software was chosen from faculty discussion/interaction/negotiation and a standard package was put together. Computer services on campus were an issue, and trial-and-error processes resulted in an efficient system. Yearly faculty retreats were conducted to discuss what was and was not working and to provide an ongoing assessment tool.

Many steps had to occur in sequence to produce the transition to a technologically rich learning environment. Planning and completing the steps in a thoughtful order has worked at RPI.

A new vision: eMPAC - Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center

President Jackson responded to the question of why RPI is building eMPAC, a center for the arts:

    Our society. . .needs scientists and engineers who are able to speak out, guide the public, establish policy - in short, to serve as leaders. If Rensselaer's graduates are to live up to their role, they must be not only technically brilliant but also articulate, broad-minded, and humane.

The goal of RPI's new Biotechnology Center is to fix the body, whereas eMPAC's goal is to fix the mind, heart, and soul. Johannes Goebel, Director of eMPAC, described how eMPAC's mission is to merge both experimental media together with a performing arts center. "Experimental" is anything unexpected, and "media" is electricity converted into some event for our senses. "Performing arts" express any time-based art form, such as dance, music, and film.

Lacking its own faculty and classes, the building will still provide students with the opportunity to participate in its projects and productions. eMPAC will house a concert hall large enough for a symphony orchestra with superb acoustics, in addition to a high-tech theater dedicated to experimental work. Separate studios will feature immersing visual and audio environments for research, as well as exhibitions. Other features include recording studios, spaces for artists-in-residence, and the campus radio station WRPI.

eMPAC has already started giving performances, beginning with a production of "The Fly Bottle" to inaugurate the opening of the companion Biotechnology Center. The "Wow & Flutter" festival celebrated the history of experimental arts featuring work from the 1960s. The past is an interesting place for eMPAC programming to start, because once its building is completed, eMPAC will be making history!