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"A Conduit of Continuous Learning"

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Remarks, Commencement Address
State University of New York Institute of Technology

May 15, 2004

Thank you, President Somerville, and good morning to all. It is an honor and my pleasure to greet you on this day of celebration at the State University of New York-Institute of Technology. I offer congratulations to you, the graduates: This is the day you commence your future.

To the families and friends, especially to the parents who share in today's joy: you deserve congratulations, also. I think back to my own commencement. I was the first in a large family, both birth and foster, to graduate from college, so graduation day was a very big deal—they all came and celebrated, at moments rather boisterously, I have to say. The families here today know that it’s their moment of glory, too!

To the graduates: You have worked hard to achieve this milestone. Many of you have worked long hours at jobs as well as at your studies, and cared for children and others while pursuing your degrees. Many of you are committed to your roots in the Mohawk Valley and are eager to play dynamic roles in its future. With your new skills, you are well-poised at this exciting juncture and ready to grasp the opportunity before you.

The beautiful valley that cradles this campus has a venerable historic heritage, reaching back to our nation's founding. As you know, this region played a pivotal role in the American Revolution and went on to make important contributions to our nation's transportation and industry.

Personally, this region touched me when I was a young engineer at RCA Corporation and visited the prestigious Rome Air Development Center in my work. I know well that scholarship and industrial innovation in science and engineering have a proud foundation in this region.

Today, a new window of opportunity is opening. For the past two decades, this region has elected a representative to Congress, Sherry Boehlert, who has a deep understanding of how science and engineering buttress our nation's future.

As chair of the Committee on Science in the House of Representatives in Washington, Sherry has worked with courage and integrity to strengthen institutions like SUNYIT. He is committed to ensuring that the region's residents receive a 21st century education so vital to opening a new era of economic strength. With his leadership, new frontiers of the mind will open and yield fresh fortune built on your historical technological foundation.

Just recently, a local landmark was rediscovered in Utica that testifies to this region's historic, economic dynamism. A SUNYIT engineering professor, Andrew Wolfe, recently led a group of students to a site in Utica that was overgrown with vegetation. They cleared away brush and debris to expose an old lock of the Chenango Canal. This waterway once fed into the Erie Canal—the conduit that brought prosperity to cities from one end of the state to the other.

"The Erie Canal," as historians remind us, "proved to be the key that unlocked an enormous series of social and economic changes in the young nation." As you know, it followed the natural gateway of the Mohawk Valley through the Appalachian Mountains to open up the country to westward migration.

Today, revolutionary innovations in transportation and communication networks stand poised to energize economic growth – tying us together not only as a nation but around the globe. The stone and earthwork canals of the past have given way to virtual networks as the backbone of our future economy. This is the era not of the canal but of cyberinfrastructure. We speak of a "knowledge economy" –based on strong investment in the fundamental research that spawns innovation and accelerates communications and combinations. Graduates like you stand ready to embrace the challenges and opportunities of change, complexity, and interconnection.

Today, more than ever before, we recognize that universities such as SUNYIT, their faculty and graduates, are critical resources that can make a valuable contribution to economic development – much the same way that agricultural, industrial and natural resources did in the 19th and 20th centuries. The development of a four-year engineering degree here at SUNYIT embodies that forward-looking vision. New knowledge at the frontier of research and learning is our new capital, our engine of innovation. When students become part of this research, they learn the problem-solving skills that employers seek.

We also recognize that we can design partnerships – among universities, colleges, and community colleges, business and government – to speed the transformation of new knowledge into new products, processes and services, and in their wake produce new jobs and create wealth.

All of this has great resonance for you as graduates. Technological innovation, fed by new discoveries, has connected our nation to the world in profound new ways. The level of knowledge needed to flourish today in this interconnected world is growing at an accelerating rate.

It has been said that "Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century." We're already there, and the need for lifelong learning is an exciting fact of life. Students who graduate today—all of you—will experience a number of changes in your career paths over your lifetimes. Whether you pursue engineering, scientific, medical, business or humanities careers, you will be continuously charting new territory. And those who prepare you for this dynamic world will be just one step ahead.

Learning, and the discovery of new knowledge at the frontiers of the human mind—also known as research--are inseparable. At the National Science Foundation, we are investing in a new science—the "science of learning" research that probes the fundamental processes that underlie learning. The insights and technologies that result will make us all better "lifelong learners."

Insights about how the brain works are now coming to the classroom. As neuroscientist Richard Restak says, "In the past 20 years, scientists have learned more about the brain than they have in the previous two hundred."

Take MRI—the medical scanning technique otherwise known as magnetic resonance imaging. It is now being used to map the functioning of the brain. With MRI, researchers have identified key regions in the brain that are critical to learning mathematics. The patterns of learning are traced in the brains of middle school students who are learning algebra. Here is a new threshold of "mind-reading." For the first time, we can begin to trace how individual students learn in unique ways—and what works best for each one.

Today, a major conduit of knowledge and economic opportunity—a virtual "Erie Canal"—is information technology, offering the riches of the world's knowledge to every classroom and every home, at any time in our lives. Our increasingly interconnected world offers growing opportunities for people to work at high-tech jobs no matter where they live, from the Silicon Valley to the Mohawk Valley. We need citizens savvy in information-tech to engineer computer systems we can trust—systems that support our electric power grid, our business investments and our medical care. The new term for this is "information assurance."

A number of you are graduating with degrees in health care, a sector of huge importance to our economy which is more than ripe for an infusion of reliable and secure information systems. Today, only about 5% of doctors store patient data on networked medical record systems. They simply do not trust computerized records to be both correct and private. Electronic medical records also make economic sense. It is estimated that good info tech could save $140 billion a year—ten percent of what we now spend on health care.

A partnership centered right here is now promoting information assurance training and education. SUNYIT, Utica College, Syracuse University, and the Herkimer County and Mohawk Valley Community Colleges--supported by the National Science Foundation--are collaborating to teach "cyber-cops, system analysts, and... programmers." Students will be able to follow multiple educational pathways among the institutions, ranging from going into law enforcement to pursuing doctorates in information technology.

Such partnerships between academe and industry are beacons for students who want to develop skills to shape this new world. This summer, 50 high-schoolers from groups that are underrepresented in science and technology careers will pursue information technology internships through the program.

As Heather Dussault puts it—she's at the Griffis Institute as well as being a SUNYIT professor—"We want to be the catalyst to bring together the public and private sectors--to develop innovative programs, create new jobs, and help our students realize their dreams." Here is a wonderful example of how 21st century learning through collaboration has great potential to promote economic progress—and fulfill individual dreams in the process.

Today is commencement day, but-to paraphrase the playwright Lillian Hellman—nothing begins at the time you think it did. Commencement of your dreams as graduates has, in fact, already begun, and your learning for a lifetime is already underway. The Erie Canal has been called "the first engineering school in America," because the canal designers had to learn on the job. May you continuously learn throughout your lives to make sure that you are always capable of shaping the kind of world in which you want to live.

Wisdom lies in knowing what to prepare for, but equally in preparing for the unknown. Over time, and with your degrees firmly in hand, you will garner the wisdom not only to do things right but, more importantly, to do the right thing.

I wish you a future that is challenging and rewarding, a future that provides every opportunity to create the life – and the world – you imagine, a future that lets your spirits soar. Our collective future depends on it.

Best wishes to you all.

Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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