Encouraging Creative Connections

How four National Medal Laureates found inspiration - and hope to spark creativity in others

By creating an environment that encourages individuals to push their boundaries, provides them with the resources and teachers necessary to expand their knowledge, and challenges them to question conventional wisdom, it is possible to help foster creativity.

That was the message Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson gave during a recent alumni event hosted by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. During the event, three National Medal laureates and alumni of the private research university – B. Jayant Baliga, Ted Hoff, and Steven Sasson – sat on a panel to discuss what factors contributed to their creative discoveries.

B. Jayant Baliga, Shirley Ann Jackson, Steven Sasson, and Marcian "Ted" Hoff at RPI's National Medal Laureates Symposium

Quoting Steve Jobs, Jackson said creativity “is just connecting things.”

“When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something,” the quote continues. “It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.”

Jackson said that as president of Rensselaer, she has worked toward creating an environment that encourages students to connect experiences and skills to come up with new solutions to challenging problems.

“We have recast our educational approach within a paradigm we call ‘The New Polytechnic,’” Jackson said. That paradigm, she said, is driven by two factors: the advent of powerful new tools of understanding and technological advances, and contemporary challenges, “such as a changing climate, and new, and not well understood, diseases such as Zika and Ebola—which are global, complex, and interconnected. Such opportunities and such challenges demand broad-based collaborations across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions.”

Those types of collaborations can certainly be engineered. Jackson described several efforts underway at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute today that aim to do so – and not just in science and technology. The Mandarin Project, for example, encourages students to make creative connections in a cultural manner, which Jackson said is “crucially important.” In this course, students learn Mandarin Chinese language and culture. The class engages students “by making them players in a semester-long group game narrative,” Jackson said, “and uses mixed-reality, immersive environments that recreate the experience of the Beijing airport and a Chinese teahouse for cultural immersion.”

“In a world in which our students will be expected to collaborate across geographies as well as disciplines and sectors, we consider it crucially important that they develop the creative connections that are cultural, as well as idea-driven,” Jackson said.

But what the laureates in attendance and other impactful scientists and inventors truly have in common, Jackson said, is a “willingness to ignore conventional wisdom and to see potential where others saw dead ends.”

For some, it was a teacher or mentor who sparked that sense of ambition.

Sasson, who won the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his work that led to the creation of the digital camera, said he had two such moments throughout his education.

Mr. Sasson receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama

During his first semester at Rensselaer, Sasson said he took a physics course taught by Robert Resnick, a world renowned physics educator.

“I was blown away by how elegantly he solved problems that I had worked on for hours – he never had notes,” Sasson said. “I was so inspired by his elegance and ease. He taught me to look at the principles, find out what you know, and go after what you don’t know. I carried that with me.”

During his last semester at Rensselaer, it was another professor who inspired Sasson.

Professor Sorab Ghandhi, who at the time was chair of the electrophysics department, was teaching a survey class for electron devices.

“Quite frankly, I was very scared of him. He would come in and it was a very loose class and he would just lecture,” Sasson said. “After about the third class, someone got up the nerve to ask how we were going to be graded. Dr. Ghandhi just looked up and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Thrill me. Teach me something.’”

Sasson said he remembered writing his thesis, thinking he would fail the class. But much to his surprise, the paper – on how light affected silicon – came back with an “A,” and a note from his professor saying that while he didn’t agree with everything Sasson had written, it was clear he had “done some thinking.”

“I thought, well, I might not be able to teach him something, but maybe I can teach myself something,” Sasson said. “What he taught me was that you don't have to be an expert in a field in order to make an original contribution. I carried that with me when I started looking at new types of imaging.”

Baliga – who has been called “the man with the largest negative carbon footprint” – received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his work developing a specific type of semiconductor now used in a variety of electronic devices, making them more energy efficient.

He, too, had an experience with Professor Ghandhi that shaped his future endeavors.

When Baliga proposed his idea for making high-speed transistors as a Ph.D. student, he said Ghandhi suggested using a combination of materials that had the potential to detonate on exposure to air. But despite the high risk and significant time commitment, Baliga said he was successful. His method is now used in creating films “for everything,” he said, including high-speed transistors, lasers, LEDs, and more.

Dr. Baliga receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama

“The more important thing that happened to me at RPI was that Professor Ghandhi showed me you have to take great risk in order to have great rewards and achievements,” Baliga said.

Hoff, who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for the development and application of the first microprocessor, said it was simply a sequence of events that propelled him to his discoveries.

“I was a pretty serious electronics hobbyist, even before I came to RPI, but I didn’t know that much about the fundamentals,” he said. “RPI’s physics, math and electronics courses really taught me an awful lot more about what was going on inside.”

From there, Hoff worked on a senior thesis at Rensselaer before traveling to Stanford University for graduate work, where he was able to take a course from an expert in his field of study.

Dr. Hoff in the lab!

When Hoff began working at the burgeoning Intel Corporation in 1968 as its twelfth employee, the company was just beginning to dip its toes into the world of semiconductor memory. At the time, Hoff said, the company agreed to take on some other jobs, including one to build calculators for a Japanese company. Hoff served as the liaison for that contract.

Not long into the process, Hoff said he noticed Intel’s plans could actually hurt the company financially. When he brought his concerns of the head of the company, he was challenged to come up with a solution.

“We didn’t want to walk away from the order, and it might have been dangerous to proceed with it,” Hoff said.

A few months later, Hoff came back with an idea to make a “really simple, little computer” –– the plan that would eventually lead to his creation of the first microprocessor.

“I figured out … I could program it to do almost every one of the functions needed in the various chips that Japanese company was requesting,” Hoff said. “Then it turned out we had an agreement where we could sell it to other people, and we started doing it. It became an overnight success, you might say.”

The work that Hoff, Sasson, and Baliga have done, Jackson said, laid the foundation for creating the types of devices that are now commonplace in our everyday lives, and opened the door for further advancements from new scientists and innovators.

“There are two very deep things embedded in this discussion,” Jackson said. “One is that there’s a kind of synergistic effect between the ‘hard technologies’ … that enable the development of all of the things digital and computational that we so depend upon and take for granted. At the same time, that very set of breakthroughs in computation pushed the boundaries of what the physical devices can do. But you really don’t have one without the other. You certainly don’t have any of it without the real innovators.”