RPI to Launch Douglas A. Mercer ’77 Innovation and Exploration Laboratory

Expanded lab will foster innovation and collaboration

November 7, 2022


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will launch the Douglas A. Mercer ’77 Innovation and Exploration Laboratory at 10:30 a.m. on November 9 at the Russell Sage Dining Hall. Affectionately called the Mercer XLab, the facility aims to facilitate innovation in pedagogy and multiply learning opportunities by fostering interconnection among students and faculty. Mercer, a longtime supporter of his alma mater, originally made possible the Mercer Student Exploration Laboratory. Now, thanks to a $2 million gift, the laboratory is expanding in scope.

“The world needs more engineers, specifically electrical engineers,” said Mercer. “Engineers, and largely electrical engineers, have created and enabled technology that has resulted in huge productivity advancements. I see the newly expanded XLab as a place to question everything and assume nothing while exploring the proposition that the application of innovative technology can indeed improve how RPI educates (electrical, computing, and systems) engineers of the future.”

The Mercer XLab will foster a learning ecosystem that actively engages faculty, students, and staff in an educational experiment to amplify the learning experience of RPI students. It will provide intentional spaces to build innovations, find collaborations, share technical tools, and aggregate results from the explorations of participants to multiply the impact of innovators.

With this lab, Rensselaer is building upon its legacy of innovative pedagogy, which started with its academic founder, Amos Eaton, nearly 200 years ago. Eaton was a pioneer in the hands-on approach to education that included field studies, laboratory experiments, and subsequent reporting to peers and faculty rather than passively sitting and listening to lectures exclusively. In more recent years, Rensselaer pioneered “the studio classroom,” an interactive and team-based learning concept; the “flipped classroom,” in which students learn the basics independently and classroom time is used for guided problem-solving and experimentation; and the Mobile Studio, which allowed students to harness the power of laboratory equipment with a small, inexpensive device.

“To keep evolving, we need to remain passionate about learning and open to new ideas by focusing on collaboration and interdisciplinarity,” said President Martin Schmidt ’81, Ph.D. “There are so many different learning styles for success. The Mercer XLab will bring together students and faculty with vastly different backgrounds and experiences to explore, ideate, create, and even to fail sometimes. I am very excited to see how RPI’s long history of innovative teaching and learning will be revolutionized.”

The inaugural director of the Mercer XLab is Shayla Sawyer, Rensselaer professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering (ECSE) and champion of hands-on, design-infused engineering education. Sawyer is now an accomplished researcher and revered professor, but that is not the path she originally intended. She began as a student-athlete at Hampton University with aspirations to work for General Electric as a technical manager. Supportive, engaged professors like Hampton University Dean and former RPI Professor Morris Morgan and retired ECSE Professor Ken Connor influenced her decision to go to graduate school and, ultimately, strive to make an impact on the future through a career in academia.

“The X in the Mercer XLab represents the multiplication of ideas, multiplication of learning, and the unknowable, exciting endpoint from the point we are starting from. When there is an ambitious vision felt strongly, you need the perspectives of others to add to your potential and the intentional space to explore, assess, fail, and iterate. This has been my entire lived experience in many facets of my life,” Sawyer said. “Whatever your personal, perceived potential is, make the decision to multiply that potential in a dynamic community of thinkers, tinkerers, explorers, and innovators. I hope the XLab becomes a space where students, faculty, and staff can come together to actively pursue a revolution at RPI and push the boundaries of what it means to learn at an academic institution.”

Sawyer cites three foundational pillars for the Mercer XLab. First, it will enable student exploration by supporting tinkering, open-ended design experimentation, and intellectual curiosity. Second, the lab will support innovative faculty and staff in curricular and self-directed learning innovations. Third, it will facilitate idea exchange through cross-pollination through tools sharing, access to external education-centric expertise, and strategic planning toward high-impact, external dissemination opportunities.

The launch event will feature remarks by President Schmidt; Dean of the School of Engineering Shekhar Garde; Head of the ECSE Department John Wen; current MBA student Caitlin Bennett ’22; National Science Foundation Deputy Assistant Director of Engineering and former ECSE Professor Don Millard; Ken Connor; and Sawyer. Video displays will highlight teaching innovations already occurring under Sawyer’s leadership. Students will present projects from Sawyer’s foundational electric circuits class, which has already implemented the innovative pedagogy.

A pioneer in analog-digital conversion, Mercer joined Analog Devices in 1977, where he contributed to more than 30 commercial products. He holds 13 U.S. patents, was appointed ADI Fellow in 1995, and retired from full-time work in 2009. He remains a Fellow Emeritus within Analog Devices. He has long been involved in the ECSE Department, sponsoring a student circuit design contest since 2007, endowing a distinguished lecturer seminar series, and providing an endowment in 2012 to establish the Douglas Mercer ’77 Laboratory for Student Exploration & Innovation, an open electronics makerspace where students can tinker with their own ideas. Mercer deeply believes in the benefit of hands-on experience in the learning process. 

“Doug Mercer has shared his experience and insights with ECSE for more than a decade,” said Wen. “As a member of the ECSE Advisory Council, Doug has regularly provided input and feedback to our curriculum and instructional methodologies. Doug’s latest donation will galvanize the department’s innovation in educating the next generation of engineers.”

Learn more about the Mercer XLab at RPI.

Written By Katie Malatino
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