Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Graduates Urged To Seize Modern Day “Sputnik Challenge” and “Take Chances” at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 206th Commencement


Media Relations

May 26, 2012

Graduates Urged To Seize Modern Day “Sputnik Challenge” and “Take Chances” at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 206th Commencement

Bart Gordon, Former U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology Chairman and U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize Recipient Steven Chu Address 1,613 Graduates

Former U.S. House of Representative Committee on Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon told graduates to use their education to answer today’s “Sputnik challenge,” while U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu spoke to the value of individual conviction at the 206th Commencement at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Saturday.

“Today I ask you to pause and truly reflect because I believe that you are graduating at a momentous, even pivotal, time in the history of this planet and of humanity and that you, the Class of 2012, are especially well-suited to be a part of what comes next – for this country and the world,” Gordon said.

Chu advised the students to take chances, reminding them that “your time and energy are the most valuable resources you will ever have.”

Gordon and Chu addressed 1,613 graduates, their families, and friends at the 206th Rensselaer Commencement today, held in the East Campus Athletic Village Stadium. During the ceremony, Rensselaer awarded a total of 1,742 degrees. They include: 357 master’s degrees, 136 doctoral degrees, and 1,249 bachelor’s degrees. Some graduates have earned more than one degree.

Gordon recalled that, as a child, he searched the night sky for Sputnik because its launch had “shocked me, my family, and Americans everywhere.” Gordon said that President John F. Kennedy’s response to the threat to American national security and economic security was the challenge that, 12 years later, led Americans to the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic steps on the surface of the moon.

“I tell you that because America and the whole planet are in desperate need of another Sputnik to Apollo kind of step forward,” Gordon said. Meeting the energy and other critical needs of a global a population of seven billion and rising is “the Sputnik challenge of today.”

“On your graduation day, we are at a point in human history where we need a leap forward in innovation and technology – because the failure to meet the needs and desires of those 10 billion people will put free economies, political systems, and the well-being of this planet at risk,” Gordon said.

Chu began his address by recalling that many great technical inventions — the steam engine, automobile, telephone – have been greeted by society with doubt and discouragement.

“You may hear doubters and naysayers; don’t be discouraged — all these pioneers had their doubters,” Chu said. He advised the graduates to take risks, to maintain confidence in the face of false starts and mistakes, and to accept failure as the currency of effort.

“Your biggest failure would occur if you never fail; if you never do that in your life, you will never know what you could have done,” Chu.

Discussing the power of teachers to inspire, Rensselaer alumnus and digital camera inventor Steven Sasson said, “My experience at RPI prepared me well for the challenges I found at the Eastman Kodak company where my initial work in the area of solid-state imaging and digital technology allowed me to participate in the technical revolution that has transformed photography.  I remember teachers like Dr. Sohrab Gandhi and Dr. Robert Resnick, both of whom challenged and inspired me to do things that I thought were beyond my reach.”

Speaking of the capacity of computation to change the world, artificial intelligence pioneer Edward Feigenbaum said, “The IT exponentials can power America’s competitiveness. Information and knowledge processed by computers, stored in networks, and applied across the full spectrum of human activity is the new wealth of nations. Here America is second to none, by a wide margin, especially in software…So, RPI graduates, join the ride up the IT exponentials. Prosper and have fun like we did. Or, better still, invent the next great thing!”

Honorable Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States, speaks to the value of virtue

Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, reminded the graduates of the value of virtue.

“You have been awarded degrees for excellence of the mind, for knowledge,” Scalia said. Our society, he continued, worships knowledge. But those who consider education paramount forget the “principal lesson” learned by the rise of Nazism amid the intellect and education of 20th century Germany.

“Knowledge is not virtue. When you leave here, I assume you will continue to acquire knowledge ... but you also have to continue to acquire virtue,” Scalia said. Recalling the advice of his father, Scalia said “he told me once, ‘son, brains are like muscles, you can hire them by the hour. The only thing that is not for sale is character.’ Try to have both.”

Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson counsels a “triple helix” of excellence, leadership, and community

Using the example of the first powered airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson spoke to the graduates about their responsibility as the next generation of innovators. Until the Wright brothers’ 59-second flight, Jackson said, powered flight had been considered the “standard of impossibility.”

“You, and your generation, enter a world — indeed, were born into a world — which has been molded by technology into a vastly different place than was the world of the Wright brothers,” Jackson said. “And yet, all that has changed, actually, is that there are, now, new ‘frontiers of impossibility’ to reach, along with new tools to unravel those mysteries, and to make those discoveries which will take us there.”

In reaching for that future, and grappling with the complexities they introduce, Jackson advised a “triple helix” of excellence, leadership, and community. Excellence, said Jackson, requires continual renewal and an embrace of “lifelong learning by asking questions, exploring, discovering, pushing boundaries.” Leadership “is a fundamental responsibility which all of us own.” And community, which, she said, might also be termed “inclusiveness,” is key “to the melding of diverse thought born of varied life experiences which can lead to a superior result in any endeavor.”

Class president tells classmates to retain their ties to their alma mater and to one another

Class of 2012 President Rob Sobkowich reminded graduates that, during their four years together, they had grown into a tight-knit group, and that their ties to Rensselaer would always bind them together. He asked them to remember that bond in the years to come, and maintain their allegiance to the school.

“We have finally made it to the culmination of four years of coursework, exams, and late nights. While we all come from different backgrounds and entered Rensselaer as one of the most diverse classes in the Institute’s history, today we graduate as a unified body,” Sobkowich said. “This ceremony does not represent the end of our relationship with Rensselaer, but rather the beginning of the next chapter.”

Celebrated guests awarded honorary degrees

The Honorable Bart J. Gordon received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the ceremony. Congressman Gordon is a leader in U.S. science, technology, energy, and health policy, and champion of the America COMPETES Act, which authorizes federal investments in innovation and innovators. Currently a partner at K&L Gates law firm, he served for 26 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, from Tennessee. As Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Congressman Gordon built bipartisan support for enactment of the America COMPETES Act, helped craft the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, and was a leading proponent of America’s space program, and of enhancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

The Honorable Antonin Scalia, J.D., Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. He is the longest-sitting member of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a self-described “originalist,” interpreting the U.S. Constitution by beginning with the text, and giving that text the meaning that it bore when it was adopted. The Associate Justice was nominated by President Reagan and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 1986. His experience spans the private, academic, and public sectors, having practiced law in Cleveland, Ohio, taught law at the Universities of Virginia and Chicago, and applied the law, working in the Administrations of Presidents Nixon (Office of Telecommunications Policy) and Ford (U.S. Department of Justice), before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals by President Reagan in 1982.

The Honorable Steven Chu, Ph.D., United States Secretary of Energy, distinguished scientist, and co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics (1997), received an honorary Doctor of Science degree. Charged with implementing key components of President Obama’s energy agenda since 2009, he has devoted his recent scientific career to the search for new solutions to energy challenges and stopping global climate change. Previously he was Director of the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Professor of Physics and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and held positions at Stanford University and AT&T Bell Laboratories. The holder of 10 patents and author of nearly 250 published scientific and technical papers, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and numerous other civic and professional organizations.

Edward A. Feigenbaum, Ph.D., pioneer in artificial intelligence and renowned computer scientist, received an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree. He is a recipient (1994) of the “Nobel Prize of computing,” the ACM Turing Award of the Association for Computing Machinery, for pioneering the design and construction of large-scale artificial intelligence (AI) systems, demonstrating the practical importance and potential commercial impact of artificial intelligence technology. Dr. Feigenbaum is the Kumagai Professor of Computer Science Emeritus at Stanford University. He was Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force (1994-97). He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Intelligent Systems/Artificial Intelligence Hall of Fame of the IEEE, and the Hall of Fellows of the Computer History Museum. In his honor, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence awards the Feigenbaum Prize for outstanding AI research advances made by using experimental methods of computer science.

Steven J. Sasson ’72, M.S. ’73, inventor of the digital camera and related imaging technologies that have transformed the industry and the world, received an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree. An electrical engineer, now retired from the Eastman Kodak Company, he revolutionized the way images are captured, stored, and shared. Sasson was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2010), the highest honor for technological achievement bestowed by the President of the United States. In 2011 he was inducted in the Inventors Hall of Fame. He holds more than 10 key digital imaging patents. He was awarded the 2011 Davies Medal, the highest honor awarded to an alumnus of the Rensselaer School of Engineering.

For more information about the Commencement speaker and honorands, visit:

For a full text of Bart J. Gordon's Commencement address, visit:

For information regarding Commencement, visit: