On the Edge of Innovation: STEM Education in the Capital-Region

Skidmore College class in the lab.
Skidmore College students Alex Zanetti and Michael Hyde purify proteins in the college’s biochem lab with Professor Brandy Sreenilayam.
Discovery Degree students from Russell Sage College study the ecology of the Hudson River at Dennings Point in Beacon.
Liz Hill and Allison Taylor working on a project at Russell Sage.
Working on a project at RPI.
Studying User Centered Design at RPI.
Michael J. Hickey, executive director of Siena College’s Stack Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, reviews a student’s work.
Ashley Johnston and the adjustable limb she created with the help of Union College’s Objet500 Connex Multi- Material 3D printer.
Dr. John Rieffel with Union College’s Objet500 Connex Multi-Material 3D printer, which was purchased with a National Science Foundation grant. Photo by Matt Milless, Union College

 

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According to one recent report, the United States currently ranks 27th among developed nations in the percentage of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering. Consequently, educators and policy makers are working together to stress the importance of education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics—or STEM.

Why such a fuss about STEM education? A United States Department of Commerce report entitled The Competitiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States, may offer the best explanation.

“As global competition continues to grow,” begins its introduction, “it is critical that the institutions driving innovation improve their ability to develop products and services with market relevance and economic value.”

Perhaps no local college has embraced that concept better than Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The oldest technological research institute in the United States, RPI is already fairly well versed at turning ideas into successful business and marketable products.

In 1980, the college launched the Rensselaer Innovation Hub, the nation’s first business incubator program wholly sponsored and operated by a university, while the college’s Emerging Ventures Ecosystem provides pre-seed-stage entrepreneurs with venture and growth development assistance. And the Paul J. and Kathleen M. Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship helps foster new generations of budding and successful entrepreneurs through outreach programs, education and support systems.

Of course, spurring classroom innovation and developing and testing new ideas and products doesn’t happen overnight. As Albert Einstein once said, “The world we have created is a product of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

“I just read on the Internet that there are 26 million STEM jobs, and those jobs make up 20 percent of all the jobs in the United States,” said Dr. Hadi Salavitabar, former provost and academic vice president of the College of Saint Rose in Albany. Environmental science jobs are reportedly expected to grow by 25 percent—the fastest among the sciences.

Empowering young women to pursue STEM career paths is especially important because only 25 percent of females in the United States reportedly pursue careers as scientists and engineers. There is also an economic benefit for young women who choose to pursue these paths—women in STEM jobs reportedly earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations.

Gender aside, Salavitabar, contended that it is critically important for today’s college students to be as well grounded as possible in math and science because these are the skills they need to compete in the technologically changing, global marketplace.

“I often liken the students’ situation to that of a technician,” he said. “If they have the right tools in their toolbox, a technician can fix anything. It’s much the same with college students. They have to learn the skills and be given the necessary tools to think outside the box. As educators, we need to give them all the tools they need to adjust to whatever comes their way.”

Though many of his proposed ideas were still on the drawing board, Salavitabar said he was intent on developing not only international partnerships and interdisciplinary academic programs but also curricula that emphasize both research and leadership.

“Being able to work independently as an individual is obviously crucial,” he said, “but team-building exercises and the collaborative process are just as important. Being able to work with other individuals is part of the learning process too.”

When it comes to that process, most people automatically think of either Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as being the United States’ most well known and innovative universities in STEM research. Of course, it helps that those institutions each have two of the largest research and development (R&D) budgets in the country. Here in New York’s Capital District, only RPI has that kind of money earmarked for R&D—$85.1 million, according to Michael Mullaney, RPI’s former assistant director of news and editorial services.

But not having RPI’s deep coffers certainly doesn’t mean the five other major private universities and colleges in the Capital Region aren’t working just as hard, or as successfully, to provide unique training, research and educational opportunities to their students. For instance, on the Troy campus of Russell Sage College, qualified students spend the summer after their first year in a liberal arts and science course called “Summer Sage on the Hudson” as part of the college’s Discovery Degree program.

Students enrolled in this program can complete a bachelor’s degree in three years of study and graduate with a degree in such majors as mathematics, health sciences and environmental studies, among others. The 15-credit summer course uses the Hudson River as a springboard to study history, the arts and environmental issues, as well as techniques of research, according to its then coordinator, Prof. Toby Michelena.

“We use a different approach to learning, it’s a very experiential class,” said Michelena.

“One day we’ll be talking about the Erie Canal and the impact it had on the manufacturing sector of the Hudson River Valley, or learning about the art and architecture of the Hudson River area and how it changed from Dutch colonial times, and the next day you might find us visiting the Chinese Museum in New York City to better understand issues relating to immigration, or taking a walking tour of Harlem to learn about the African-American experience in New York.”

Things are also on track at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs with the ongoing development of the college’s eagerly anticipated Center for Integrated Sciences (CIS). At a projected cost of over $100 million, the 200,000 square foot CIS will house 46 research labs, 16 classrooms and 22 teaching labs.

“The boundary between teaching and research is permeable, and students must be able to work collaboratively with each other and with faculty members,” said Skidmore President Philip A. Glotzbach. “This has led us to understand that we could be so much more effective if we create more synergies by bringing every campus department that is engaged in physical or life sciences together in close proximity.”

“The entire facility will function as a laboratory for the innovation, development, testing and application of new ideas,” continued President Glotzbach. Prof. Kimberly A. Frederick, chair of the chemistry department at Skidmore, said even the layout of the facility would help facilitate learning—a climate-change study, she indicated, might be next door to one involving genetic mutation research.

Over in Loudonville at Siena College, the new Siena Advanced Instrumentation and Technology (SAInT) Center opened for student use in 2014. Spearheaded by Saratoga Springs resident Dr. Allan Weatherwax, the dean of Siena’s School of Science, the center transforms the delivery of STEM education by providing students with unprecedented exposure to emerging technologies and techniques.

Besides the SAInT Center, Siena can proudly trumpet its Stack Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship as yet another way it affords students unique educational opportunities. Marketing and actuarial science major Chad Bingo, credited the Stack Center with helping him strike a deal with a pet product manufacturer in China to sell his “Gotta Go Button.”

Designed to end the barking, scratching and constant whining dog owners are always subjected to when man’s best friend wants to go outside, Bingo said the “Entrepreneurship and New Business Creation” course he took in the fall of his sophomore year helped him market his product. Named for Siena graduates David and Christine Stack of Saratoga Springs, the Stack Center engages students through high impact learning practices designed to develop critical thinking and entrepreneurial skills. Just like at RPI’s Rensselaer Innovation Hub, Siena students learn how to create and obtain financing, establish their legal entity, create business plans and lead employees.

Through a process called “Innovate– Create–Accelerate,” the students are able to apply these skills to develop and implement successful businesses and ideas, explained Michael J. Hickey, Executive Director of the Stack Center. “There is a distinct difference between the skill set of an inventor and an entrepreneur,” said Hickey. “Both innovation and commercialization are needed for venture success. At the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the skills we teach can surely help the inventor become an entrepreneur.”

In Schenectady, Dr. John Rieffel, associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Union College, helps his colleagues on campus realize the practical applications of 3D printing, which no less than President Barack Obama sang the praises of in his 2013 State of the Union address as something that could fuel high-tech jobs in this country. The primary recipient of a $300,000 Major Research Instrumentation Grant from the National Science Foundation, Rieffel said Union purchased an Objet500 Connex Multi-Material 3D printer that has the capacity to print models with up to 14 different materials in a single job.

The process of 3D printing uses computer-created digital models to create real-world objects, explained Rieffel. Printers follow the shape of the model by stacking layer upon layer of material to make the objects. Just to be clear, 3D printers are not producing photocopies of a piece of paper. “The printer can print moving parts, it can print gears,” said Rieffel. “They’re creating something tangible, things that have a real physical presence.” Advocates of 3D printing reportedly say its use can change the face of manufacturing. Ashley Johnston can certainly attest to the revolutionary capabilities of 3D printing. As a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, Johnston invented an adjustable prosthetic limb for young amputees thanks, in large part, to her having used Union’s Objet500 Connex Multi-Material 3D printer.

“As the child grows,” said Rieffel, “the limb(s) grow with them.” For her efforts, Johnston, a onetime member of the college’s women’s ice hockey team, received the National Collegiate Athletic Association Hockey Humanitarian Award, and participated in the second annual “Final Four Innovation Summit” at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas. “Our 3D printer really does have real life research applications,” said Rieffel. “It’s unusual for undergraduate students at a small liberal arts college like Union to have access to this kind of technology.”

Here’s to hoping more students get that kind of access to technology and are afforded more of these kinds of opportunities.

This is an updated story of the original version published in Fall 2014.