Rice’s incoming students were encouraged to embrace the university’s many opportunities for scholarly engagement during the O-Week Faculty Address Aug. 15 in Tudor Fieldhouse.
Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson welcomed the students to the event, which he said is part of a long-standing Rice tradition.
“It has long been the case that at Rice we want to introduce you to the scholarly activity of the university that you have just become a member of,” he said. “You chose to come to a research university where scholarship is an essential part of what the faculty do, and therefore, what the students do. We want you to get involved in research, or composition, or creativity, or design or any of the other areas from the various schools that are here.”
In previous years, the faculty lectures featured a single speaker, but this year three faculty members from different academic areas gave TED-style talks.
First up was Emilie Ringe, an assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering, who discussed her work with nanomaterials.
“Look around you,” she said. “Not at your peers, at the stuff around you! The chairs, the tables, your clothes, your watches, your phones – they’re all made of something, right? Behind each of those objects, there’s a team of scientists and engineers who think about the materials they are made of.”
Materials are so important, Ringe said, that historic periods have been named for them – including the prehistoric Stone Age, to early civilization’s Bronze Age and Iron Age.
“What is going to be the next big thing?” Ringe asked. “I’d like to say that this is going to be the nanomaterials age.”
Ringe said students are sure to hear more about nanomaterials at Rice, as the university has pioneered the study of the subject. Rice professors Robert Curl and the late Richard Smalley (with Harold Kroto from the University of Sussex) discovered the nanomaterial buckminsterfullerene, or the “buckyball,” for which they received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“Since that time, nanomaterials have really boomed,” she said. “We can make materials at the nanoscale with basically every element in the periodic table, and these materials are right now used in your laptops, in your batteries, in your computers and in all sorts of materials-driven nanotechnology.”
Ringe closed by welcoming students to the “era of nanomaterials,” which she said is happening “right here at Rice.”
Karim Al-Zand, an associate professor of composition, took the stage next to describe “an inspirational lesson between a teacher and a student” from the past.
He was joined onstage by a string quartet that performed some of the music that developed during the lesson, which took place during the summer of 1785 in Vienna. The student was Thomas Attwood, a young English composer and organist. The teacher was famed Austrian composer and musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Attwood had weekly lessons with Mozart for two years and saved his notebook, in which he recorded his studies with his renowned teacher.
Al-Zand said that Mozart often had his students write short compositions called minuets. Mozart would typically write the opening and leave the rest for the student to write for the next lesson. But toward the end of his time in Vienna, Atwood brought Mozart a minuet he’d written all by himself for a string quartet. During the lesson referenced by Al-Zand, Atwood and Mozart worked together to make the minuet even better.
The reason I find this lesson by Mozart so inspiring and the reason why I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in Mozart’s apartment that afternoon, and the reason why I’m telling (this story) to you now is because I feel like it perfectly captures for me the marvel of learning,” Al-Zand said.
“More than simply just teaching Attwood material, Mozart was collaborating with his student. He reveals the possibilities of Attwood’s ideas and it was as though the two of them discovered and uncovered together the minuet that Atwood wanted to write.
“It’s these kinds of revelatory experiences that I wish for you during your time at Rice,” Al-Zand said. “Bring your best ideas to your teachers and work eagerly as they help you to shape them, hone your craft, develop your technique and realize your potential.”
Ruth Lopez-Turley, a professor of sociology, associate director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and director of the Houston Education Research Consortium, took the stage last and began her speech by discussing her upbringing in Laredo, Texas, a town on the U.S.-Mexico border. As a student there, she observed great disparities in educational success, she said.
“In high school, I noticed that the few white students were almost all in my honors classes and were among the top-ranking students. I noticed that while most white students were academically successful, most Hispanics were not. So at the age of 14, I began to struggle with a question: Are Hispanics inferior to whites? Am I inferior?”
Lopez-Turley carried these questions with her to college, and they ultimately inspired her current work focusing on educational inequality. She said that what she experienced in Laredo was actually part of something much bigger and systemic and best illustrated in the country’s education system. Lopez-Turley discussed these patterns in and outside the state of Texas, referencing a graph that illustrated student success and socio-economic status.
Lopez-Turley said that 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of a famous report commissioned by Congress during the civil rights movement that documented the extensive educational inequalities existing at the time.
“We’ve known about this for a long time, and here we are 50 years later and we’ve made very little progress in closing the gaps,” she said.
Lopez-Turley said she came to Rice to focus explicitly on connecting education research to decision-making, something she has been able to do through the Houston Education Research Consortium. Lopez-Turley and her team of researchers work with the Houston Independent School District to address educational issues relevant to the district and focus on informing HISD’s decision-makers directly.
“I can now point to specific examples of how my research team’s work has been used by district leaders,” she said.
Lopez-Turley noted that there is still much left to do in connecting research to policy, but she believes that educational problems can be dismantled. She encouraged the incoming students to take advantage of every opportunity to create positive change.
“Regardless of the field that you go into, I implore you to use your time at Rice to use the unbelievable resources that you have been given, not just to learn or to develop a career, but to change the world starting here,” she said.