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A Curriculum to Change the World

Higher education leaders must align their academic programming with the needs of a new era of learning and discovery.

By Shirley Ann Jackson

*The strength of the U. S. higher education system lies in the rich diversity in size, culture, focus, history, and regional identity of its individual institutions. Community colleges, technical schools, four-year colleges, and research universities offer students a wide array of educational options, opportunities, and experiences. It is this diversity that has developed the workforce and fostered the discovery and innovation that have driven our economy for generations.

Yet, at every level and type of educational institution, new technologies are radically altering teaching and learning—ready or not—at breakneck speed. This is a data-driven, supercomputer-powered, Web-enabled, globally interconnected world, and because of it, the college experience of current students is far different from the experience of students even one generation ago. As leaders, we must understand this new world if we are to provide an environment that helps our students thrive, both today and tomorrow. And, we must transform higher education for a new era.

We must understand this new world if we are to provide an environment that helps our students thrive.

While the particular approach will be different at each institution, several key components should be included in any higher education curriculum designed to prepare students to meet current challenges and position them for the future to contribute as much as possible to humanity at large.

  • Our curriculum in every field of study must be data-informed and technology-enabled. Technology is fundamentally changing how we live, work, and communicate. The good news is that students today are already comfortable with the pervasiveness of technology in their daily lives. We also must ensure that they are equipped to collaborate in the use of high-performance computing, data analytics, the Semantic Web (the next-generation version of the Internet), and other interactive tools. To maximize the opportunities to drive discovery and innovation in academic fields across the spectrum, we must ensure that students understand how to apply these new technologies and tools in their chosen areas of academic focus.
  • Our curriculum must be cross-disciplinary and collaborative. Today's economic, social, political, and environmental challenges are too complex to be resolved in isolation. Whether studying engineering, the arts, or social science, students need a curriculum that instills an appreciation for intellectual diversity and inspires them to think critically beyond any one discipline or perspective. To adequately prepare students to address complex concerns, our curriculum must not only focus on providing grounding and mastery within a core area of study, but also must encourage each student to adopt a holistic mind-set and to collaborate on tough problems.
  • Our curriculum must be global in perspective and practice. We live in a globally interconnected society. The challenges of one country are inextricably interlinked with the challenges of other countries. Therefore we must embed global interactions and experiences into our curriculum to help our students develop an expansive worldview, multicultural sophistication, and intellectual agility. We need to equip students with the skills and tools to actively work across boundaries and cultures.
  • Our curriculum must reflect the great challenges of our day. We have the opportunity and responsibility to address issues of energy security, water, food, health, and national security, as well as climate change and the allocation of scarce resources. To do so, we must invite, excite, and prepare our students to apply their knowledge to improve the daily lives of people around the globe and to ensure the sustainability of the planet. Students must work across disciplines, sectors, and cultures to drive innovation and to discover their own power to change the world for the better.

Transforming the College Curriculum

With these common ideals as a foundation, the question is how to infuse these priorities into our curriculum. Once again, the particular approach of each institution will vary.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we have engaged in an ambitious strategic effort we call the Rensselaer Plan. The first phase focused on transforming the institute from the ground up, adding new people, programs, platforms, and partnerships. New infrastructure and technologies ensure that our undergraduate and graduate students have the tools they need for collaborative discovery and innovation.

Our curricular changes have been guided by our priority to move aggressively into new fields of study of fundamental significance in the 21st century, including biotechnology and the life sciences; energy and the environment; media, arts, science, and technology; and computational science and engineering. Rensselaer is now home to a host of new research centers, including our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. We were one of the first institutions to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in games and simulation arts and sciences. 

Our cross-disciplinary approach is evident in majors such as our design, innovation, and society program, and platforms such as our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, which fosters exploration at the intersections of the arts, science, engineering, and technology. Our commitment to collaboration is reflected in our Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations—a partnership among Rensselaer, IBM, and New York State that provides students with hands-on opportunities to work across disciplines on challenges in health care, manufacturing, and other fields.

Since its founding in 1824, Rensselaer's mission has been to apply science to the common purposes of life. We remain focused on technological entrepreneurship, with a range of supports to move ideas from the lab or classroom to the marketplace. These include infusing entrepreneurship into the culture and curriculum, hosting competitions for innovative ideas and business plans, and fostering the connections that incubate great ideas into companies.

At Rensselaer, all students are expected to engage in an international experience during their four-year undergraduate education. We have greatly expanded opportunities for study abroad, internships, exchange programs, service learning, and self-identified collaborative experiences through our REACH (Rensselaer Education Across Cultural Horizons) program.

These are but a handful of the changes we have made at Rensselaer as part of a concerted effort to equip students for the important work of shaping the future. With the transformation of our campus and curriculum well under way, and as we look to celebrate Rensselaer's 200th anniversary in 2024, we are poised to focus on the next phase of our plan: to become transformative.

Transforming the World

Our motto at Rensselaer is: Why not change the world? Our curricular efforts are focused on the urgent need to provide students with the environment, the incentive, and the tools to explore, create, and collaborate to build a better world. As educators, we must determine how each of our institutions can offer students the curricular experiences they need to succeed in the workforce and to become agents of transformation across the globe.   

SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON, a theoretical physicist, has served since 1999 as the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut), the oldest technological research university in the United States. From 1995 to 1999 she served as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, appointed by President Clinton. A member of President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Jackson also serves as co-chair of the President's Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee and is a coauthor of the Report to the President on Ensuring American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing, providing an overarching strategy and recommendations for revitalizing the nation's leadership in this arena.