Road Trip: Rensselaer Polytechnic

Where lab projects rule

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This article was originally published in the America's Best Colleges 2008 edition.

When Eben Bayer first saw the Voorhees Computer Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a feeling came over him that he had found the right school. Built as a chapel in 1933, the building served a brief stint as the campus library before computer labs settled in among the marble altars and stained-glass windows. "They've got all the computers in the church!" Bayer reflected to his mother as they left campus. Four years later, the senior with a dual major in mechanical engineering and product design and innovation still sees it as an apt metaphor for a technical school.

RPI has one of four geotechnical centrifuges in the nation (scientists use them to study earthquake engineering) plus the Gaerttner Linear Accelerator, whose applications range from nuclear reactions to food preservation. And RPI emphasizes practical skills. "When I was touring colleges, a lot of places were more theoretic," says Caitlin Piette, a senior who started out as an architecture major before switching to biology. "RPI was a technical school and made you take calculus and physics and learn why a building stays up."

Burt Swersey, a lecturer for the department of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, assigns his students open-ended problems in which they design, build, and test an invention and even come up with a business model. Several class projects have turned into an actual business, and Bayer's is one of them: He developed and grew organic insulation under his bed in his dorm room. Bayer and classmate Gavin McIntyre will launch their company, Greensulate, through the Rensselaer Incubator Program next year.

RPI's hilltop campus overlooks Troy, N.Y., an old industrial town on the Hudson River that has struggled economically for years. "When I came, you didn't want to go downtown," says Bayer, although he says he has seen improvements. As a consequence, life at RPI revolves around the campus, and many science students stay busy with intensive lab work: About 800 of them complete research projects with faculty members each year, according to Prabhat Hajela, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

RPI is currently trying to diversify its student body; the campus is 76 percent male. To make women feel more welcome, RPI has been matching first-year undergraduate females with upper-class females in a mentoring program. As in many science-oriented schools, however, the balance is uneven: If you want to find the women on campus, try taking a biology course.