This year’s TEDxBinghamtonUniversity challenged speakers and the audience to “flip the script,” and rethink conventional knowledge and learning.
The annual conference, which took place on Sunday afternoon in a filled Osterhout Concert Theater, featured speakers from across the country discussing how they work to change the dialogues in their respective fields.
The talk kicked off with National Aeronautics and Space Association’s (NASA) chief scientist, Ellen Stofan. Through explaining NASA’s endeavors searching and researching inhabitable environments on other planets, she delved into the question of whether or not humanity is alone.
“We know that there are billions of galaxies,” Stofan said. “We know that within each of those billions of galaxies, there are billions of stars. How many of those stars have solar systems like ours? We have the technology. We know where to go. We know what to measure.”
She said NASA was reimagining the idea of what is traditionally thought necessary to facilitate life, and told the audience about plumes of water that have been found on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.
“Now we’re moving away from that concept of habitable zone,” she said. “We’ve flown NASA’s Cassini spacecraft right through those plumes. That’s how we know they’re water. We’ve also measured minerals … we’ve even measured organic molecules.”
The next speaker discussed a main obstacle in academia — censorship. Samar Habib, a scholar who studies LGBTQ trends in Islam and the Muslim world, stressed the importance of making universities safe spaces for academic discourse.
“I’m here today, fully aware that I’m speaking to an audience predominantly of university students and their faculty,” Habib said. “And I want to appeal to you this very basic message: let the scholar speak. Even if it scares you. Even if it threatens an idea of core identity. History has not been kind to civilizations that fall asleep at the wheel, that burn books, that punish thinkers. These are the civilizations that fall.”
This year’s TEDx is the second to feature students as speakers. Sophomores Kyrin Pollock, a biomedical engineering major, and Matthew Gill, an electrical engineering major, spoke on their foray into the world of virtual reality.
Gill and Pollock are two members of Enhance VR, a startup company that designs peripheral devices that work in conjunction with visuals to create a more immersive virtual-reality experience. Before dimming the lights and showing a slideshow of last November’s Paris attacks that utilized VR attributes with pictures and sounds, they explained the benefits of their project.
“Up until now, our perspective of our world is based on our reality,” Pollock said. “Which makes sense, right? But what if we’re exposed to other realities? That are taking place all over the world. That you read about on the news, or see images of on TV. But what would it be like if you were actually there? The use of virtual reality will help us form bigger connections to our world.”
After a performance from dance group Binghamton Bhangra and a 15-minute intermission, the event continued with a business proposal from Mason Wartman, the founder of Rosa’s Fresh Pizza.
The Philadelphia eatery has attracted national attention for its “pay-it-forward” program, which allows customers to pre-pay for a slice for those in need. He said the model is sustainable, charitable and should be emulated by other businesses and corporations.
“There’s no additional investment in capital expenditure or any extra ongoing expenses,” he said. “We simply use the assets and resources that we employ in our daily work of making pizza, and we afford food access for 100 homeless people a day. I encourage business and industry leaders to take the initiative and employ our program to their work.”
While Wartman discussed access to food, fellow speaker Akili Tommasino examined the accessibility of culture. A curatorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tommasino stressed making institutions that teach and showcase “high culture,” such as museums, accessible to youth and minorities.
“We need to learn how to develop a sense of ownership over the institutions in our communities and embrace this kind of knowledge because they allow us to inspire these communities and learn more about ourselves,” he said. “We need to get high culture, because it belongs to us.”
A BU alumna was among the speakers as well. Melissa Frascella, who graduated in 2011 with a degree from the individualized major program, told attendees to push the boundaries of what they were “supposed to” do and pursue their calling.
Frascella works for Medikidz, which is a company that works to empower children with illnesses by explaining their ailments through creating kid-friendly comics and books. Just as these children work to defy the cards they’ve been dealt, she said, so should everyone when examining their futures.
“Where did this idea come from — that we’re supposed to do something based on how old we are, what gender we are, what religion we are, etc.?” she asked. “Who made up this timeline that says we’re supposed to hit certain milestones at specific points in time? My message to you is simple: defy the common educational path or the journey you’re about to embark on, and make sure to do something that truly ignites your passion.”
The final speaker was journalist and activist Bakari Kitwana. He analyzed the term “the Ferguson effect.” Coined after the Baltimore protests, the phrase dictates that higher rates of protests against the police are linked with higher crime rates and has been appropriated by some conservative pundits. He suggested an alternative definition: that the Ferguson effect is the start of a new generation of social consciousness.
“I would like people to think of ‘the Ferguson effect’ as a decision by young people in their communities, who feel attacked by a system that wasn’t working for them, by an America that wasn’t working for them, by a police force that came in and was working in a militarized fashion,” he said. “A decision to stand up and fight for justice, and fight for the democracy that we have been told is a part of our citizenship rights.”
TEDxBU was organized by BU students Christina Huang, Kaitlyn Brouillet, Sofia Degtyar and Elaine Lee. Degtyar, a junior in the individualized major program, said the event’s organization process was grueling, but worth it.
“You spend time worrying about ticket sales but don’t come to face the living, breathing 1,200-person-organism that the audience is until the event kicks off, and the sense of gratitude hits you,” she said. “These people are there because they believe in this idea, they believe in the speakers’ work, they want to learn, they want to be present.”