Rensselaer receives $500,000 gift from The Lemelson Foundation to honor and memorialize legendary teacher and mentor with state-of-the-art studio for student inventors and entrepreneurs
May 5, 2016
Troy, NY – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) President Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., has announced that the Institute has received a significant gift from The Lemelson Foundation to establish the Burt Swersey Inventor’s Studio, reinforcing the next generation of inventors and entrepreneurs. The studio will be formally dedicated on Friday, May 6, beginning at 1:30 p.m. on the Rensselaer campus.
Professor Burt Swersey, who served as a lecturer in the Rensselaer School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering for more than 25 years, passed away in March 2015. Swersey was an innovation and entrepreneurship guru—a legendary teacher and mentor who lit the flame in many Rensselaer students to make a positive difference in the world. He believed that innovative technological solutions lead to a better and more sustainable world. He pushed students to exceed their dreams, both in the classroom and in their business ventures. His ability to motivate and engage students, and his dedication to advising, counseling, and mentoring, was unequaled. He taught the next generation of innovators how to identify problems, and seek creative solutions so that they can have a positive impact on people's lives.
“Burt Swersey believed in the power of Rensselaer students to change the world,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “He was a truly magnificent teacher, who inspired many talented young men and women to push beyond their perceived limits, and to address, with confidence and courage, the grandest of challenges. We are so pleased that The Lemelson Foundation has ensured that his great spirit lives on at Rensselaer in the Burt Swersey Inventor’s Studio.”
The endowment of $500,000 from The Lemelson Foundation will establish the Burt Swersey Inventor’s Studio, supporting activities that pay tribute to Swersey’s work and his vision. The studio will host classes that focus on innovation, and students will have access to maker/tinker tools, such as 3-D printers, computer aided design systems (CAD), and more, which are located across the campus. Students in the Inventor’s Studio, Introduction to Engineering Design, Change the World Challenge, Design, Build, and Fly, and the MILL (Manufacturing Innovation Learning Studio), as well as students from all five Rensselaer schools—Engineering; Science; Architecture; Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and the Lally School of Management—will benefit from this studio and its associated programs.
“Jerry Lemelson, founder of The Lemelson Foundation, believed in the potential of young inventors to improve lives by solving the big social and economic challenges of our time. Burt Swersey made that vision a reality. We are pleased this vision will be extended through the Burt Swersey Inventor’s Studio, providing opportunities for Rensselaer to cultivate inventors and innovators for generations to come. We can’t wait to see how these students change the world,” said Carol Dahl, Executive Director of The Lemelson Foundation.
“This studio will honor Professor Swersey’s legacy and amplify his efforts to educate students in technological innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Shekhar Garde, dean of the School of Engineering. “The Burt Swersey inventors studio embodies the spirit of multidisciplinary collaboration that is central to the concept of The New Polytechnic—a crossroads for multiplicity of perspectives and the most advanced tools and technologies to address global challenges. We envision that undergraduate and graduate students from all of Rensselaer’s schools will work together in the studio and harness other space at Rensselaer to invent and innovate, and translate their ideas into patents, seek initial investment for their companies, and commercialize their products.”
A portion of the endowment gift will also support continuing work by students and faculty from the School of Engineering, The Paul J. '69 and Kathleen M. Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship, and the founders of Ecovative, who are currently collaborating to synthesize the essence of Swersey’s philosophy—from notes, lectures, and other resources—and integrating those teachings into curricula in order to “keep the flame alive” through innovative pedagogy and the courses he taught.
“This generous gift from The Lemelson Foundation will catalyze the leadership and entrepreneurial spirit of our students and faculty,” said Mary Simoni, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “The Burt Swersey Inventor’s Studio will include a physical space as well as new programs that will connect the classroom with the design studio to enable multifaceted education, feeding collaboration, creativity, and innovation. Our vision is aligned with both Burt’s passion and the interests of The Lemelson Foundation ‘to inspire and educate the next generation of inventors and to help provide them with the resources to turn their ideas into invention-based businesses and commercial technologies.’”
About Professor Burt Swersey:
Professor Burt Swersey was an innovation and entrepreneurship guru. He lit the flame in many Rensselaer students to make a positive difference in the world. He believed that creative and innovative technological solutions will lead to a sustainable world; and he believed that Rensselaer students and faculty will play leading roles in discovering solutions to grand challenges.
Swersey served as a lecturer in the School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering for more than 25 years. He held 14 U.S. patents and was the founder of Brookline Instrument Company in 1962 and American Scale Corporation in 1973. He received several recognitions, including the 2007 Olympus Lifetime of Educational Innovation Award for his dedication to innovative thinking and his commitment to students and learning, the 2012 David M. Darrin ’40 Counseling Award from Phalanx, the Rensselaer student leadership honor society, which recognizes a faculty member who has made an unusual contribution in the counseling of undergraduate students, and the 2014 Sustainable Practice Impact Award from The Lemelson Foundation and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), now known as VentureWell, an award recognizing companies or an individual demonstrating outstanding achievement in developing clean technologies, implementing sustainable practices in their businesses, or providing exceptional education opportunities to university students.
Swersey received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in 1959. Prior to joining Rensselaer, he was a successful innovator in the medical field. He developed a number of important inventions, including an extremely accurate scale to weigh patients, together with bed and instrumentation, revolutionizing the treatment of water loss in patients with severe burns. Throughout his career at Rensselaer, Swersey taught the ideals and methods of innovation and served as a role model to students. Many of these students have made significant impact, either as entrepreneurs or as product designers for well-established companies, accumulating patents and business plan competition awards.
Swersey taught the Inventor’s Studio course, of which he was a principal architect, at Rensselaer for the past 15 years. More recently, he had introduced a popular new course, How To Change the World, which pushes students to identify and design ways to use technology to better the lives of many around the world. Recognized by Inc.com in 2009 as among the best entrepreneurship courses in America, the Inventor’s Studio course, a semester-long capstone design experience for engineering seniors, helps students learn to identify, understand, and solve open-ended problems. Student work in the course has resulted in five patents, with several more pending. One notable project, by former Rensselaer students Eben Bayer ’07 and Gavin McIntyre ’07, became Ecovative Design, which makes biodegradable packing products for companies including Dell and Steelcase. Swersey continued to work with them as a mentor and investor in the company after their graduation.
Swersey pushed students to exceed their dreams, both in the classroom and in their business ventures. His ability to motivate and engage students, and his dedication to student advising, counseling, and mentoring, was unequaled. He had a passion for educating the next generation of innovators on how to identify problems and needs, and seek creative solutions so that they can have a positive impact on people’s lives.