In the Midst of Ideas

Everyone has heard of TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) -- the conference where people with big visions and bigger passions come together, and spread their "ideas worth sharing." TEDx is an independently organized TED event that focuses on the community it is organized in. At Carnegie Mellon University, we have our own TEDxCMU, only four years old on Sunday March 3rd, and organized entirely by a student board. This event draws over 450 attendees and is held in the same place that Randy Pausch gave his "Last Lecture."

And like every TEDx event, the board invites speakers from around the U.S., with an emphasis on Pittsburgh-based speakers. However, we also do something a little different. Carnegie Mellon University is a hotbed of ideas -- several of which grow into full-blown companies, and the students are always hoping that their projects get wide-spread attention. Putting two-and-two together, the board of TEDxCMU 2012 decided to audition students and select one Student Speaker, who would have the honor of presenting their work on the same platform as some of the more accomplished speakers. Last year about 18 students auditioned; and the student speaker so chosen went on to be selected on the TEDx blog as a favorite talk. He shared his idea of unlocking classical music using visual and cognitive tricks.

This year the number of students who auditioned was much higher, about 55. And so started an extensive process that spanned several months, whereby students presented 5, 10 and 15 minute versions of their talks and the board had the unenviable task of deciding which speakers would go through each round. As the talks got longer, the content got better and the presentations got more and more riveting. We would spend five to six hours on weekends listening to these incredible ideas; some being transformed by the passion and energy exuded by the students, and some actually taking these ideas and applying them to their own lives.

Our student speakers ranged from teenagers to mid-30-year-olds and presented their unique perspective about everything under the sun: from the transformative nature of arts, cutting-edge science and technology projects, human rights and AIDS issues, designing self curricula, learning from video games, self-exploration through adventure, importance of design in messaging, to a real-life simulation of living on mars, you name it. And we kept getting inspired! Not to mention that many made us laugh (the pee-in-your-pants kind), while others made us cry. Some made us want to emulate their lives, while others made us feel lucky about our own. But every single talk was an eye-opener; every talk made us value the rich cultures and values that we share with students around the world, the quest for learning and exploring, and the deep thirst for knowledge.

As a result of this year's process, the board is contemplating on having a TEDxCMU for student speakers alone! And given the impetus that our students get to convert their ideas and projects into real-world applications, I can rest assured that this would be very successful. Who knows, it might eventually be an idea worth spreading!