The audience in the Ralph W. Beason University Center on Samford University’s campus watched a clip of the last five seconds of the 2016 NCAA Basketball championship game between North Carolina and Villanova. The audience broke into laughter as they watched Villanova sink the game winning shot as time expired, winning the national championship in dramatic fashion. The laughter stemmed from the fact that while the drama was unfolding on the court, “My Heart Will Go On,” Celine Dion’s classic song from the movie Titanic, was playing over the clip.
Dr. Emily Hinds, the chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department at Samford University, was using the clip to help explain the difference between math and mathematical thinking during her talk at the TEDxSamfordU event.
TEDxSamfordU, now in its fourth iteration, is just one of several individual TEDx events to come out of Birmingham in recent years.
The TED organization is a nonprofit started in 1984 in California’s Silicon Valley. The mantra of TED, which stands for Technology, Education, Design, is “Ideas Worth Spreading.” In the spirit of this mantra, the TEDx program was created. It promoted the creation of individually organized events that would bring TED-like experiences to local communities all over the world. The local events, while self-organized and officially separate, are linked to TED by brand. Susan Brandt, one of the co-organizers for TEDxYouth@Mountain Brook Junior High, said that a TEDx event must reapply for a license from TED every year.
Over the course of three weeks, this year alone, there were three TEDx events in the Birmingham area: TEDxYouth@Mountain Brook Junior High on March 18, TEDxBirmingham on March 25, and TEDxSamfordU on March 30. These three weeks of events represent the growth of a TEDx community in Birmingham over the past several years.
The theme of TEDxYouth@MBJH this year was “Brace for Impact.” Audience members in the Mountain Brook Junior High auditorium watched talks from 15 youth speakers, three adult speakers, and a musical performance.
“Our event is a little bit different from TEDxBirmingham, in that we are a youth event,” said Brandt, the Technology Coordinator for Mountain Brook Junior High in addition to her role with TEDxYouth@MBJH. “For the Birmingham event, you have to be 18 years old to attend, and our event allows students and families and community members to attend together.”
This year’s event was the third iteration of TEDxYouth@MBJH. The event is the culmination of a year of learning and preparation by the MBJH TED-Ed club. The talks that the 15 youth speakers, all of which were Mountain Brook Junior High ninth graders and members of the MBJH TED-Ed club, presented at the event were essentially their final projects for the year.
The students’ talks covered topics on everything from narcissism and how it is currently affecting society, presented by Emily Bebenek, to Hays Edmunds’ talk about giving up technology for a month, to exploring the prevalence and influence of bias in the media presented by Ben Harris.
The adult speakers for the TEDxYouth@MBJH were Richard “Dicky” Barlow, the superintendent of Mountain Brook Schools; John Scalici, an award-winning teaching artist, author and musician; and Justin Scarsella, the owner and master instructor of World Class Tae Kwan Do in Birmingham.
The band Kate and the Howlers, made up of eighth and ninth grade students, gave the musical performance.
TEDxBirmingham is the largest TEDx event in the city. This year, about 600 people attended TEDxBirmingham at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center. Mandi Coker, the public relations and marketing coordinator for the event, said that TEDxBirmingham is organized completely by volunteers.
“There is a core group of six of us that work throughout the year to organize TEDxBirmingham,” said Coker. “Each of us have our own responsibilities and teams.”
Those responsibilities include organizing the event, finding speakers and helping them formulate their ideas into eight-, 12-, or 18-minute talks, setting up the stage and running the production of the event, promoting TEDxBirmingham, making sure there are activities and experiences for the audience between talks, and making sure there is engagement in Birmingham’s education community. “It is definitely a labor of love,” Coker said. “I am essentially a director of marketing for TEDxBirmingham for free.”
Coker said on the day of the event more volunteers were brought in to assist with attendee sign-in, act as ushers, help with lunch, and answer attendees’ questions.
Coker said tickets for the event were $100, but there were discounted tickets and scholarships available for those who qualified. She said ticket sales were not first-come first-served; people interested in attending had to fill out an application, and then if their application was selected, they were offered the option of purchasing a ticket.
The theme of this year’s event was “Possibility.” There were 12 speakers from all walks of life, including an illusionist, the publisher of a fashion magazine, a transplant surgeon, and a refugee advocate. Coker said that all the speakers were born, raised, worked, or schooled in Birmingham.
The topics of the talks ranged from Illusionist Brian Reaves presentation about the three types of people in a magician’s audience, to physician and global health researcher Mike Saag’s talk about the prices of prescription drugs in America, to marine biologist Elizabeth Bevan’s use of drones to study turtles in Mexico.
The event was broken into three sessions, and between sessions attendees could try out virtual reality and augmented reality devices provided by the UAB Immersive Experience Lab, meet the speakers, or watch the four “IDEArtists,” who worked throughout TEDxBirmingham to create a piece of art based on each talk. Matthew Hamilton, one of the co-organizers of TEDxBirmingham, encouraged the attendees to meet each other and talk to each other. They all wore placards around their necks, that had their name, their jobs, a topic they knew about, and a topic they wanted to learn more about.
“One of the coolest parts of the event is seeing the networking that goes on between sessions,” Coker said.
Rebecca Dobrinski, one of the co-organizers for TEDxBirmingham and a frequent contributor to Weld, said she was extremely pleased with this year’s event.
“During the breaks and at the reception, countless attendees stopped me to tell me what a great job our speakers had done and how excited they were about this year’s event,” said Dobrinski. “But, of course, we are also thinking ahead to 2018 now.”
The theme of TEDxSamfordU was “Beneath the Surface.” Jack Kawell, a junior majoring in engineering physics and the organizer of TEDxSamfordU, said that a group of eight student volunteers worked year-round to make the event possible.
“With all our talks, we attempted to go beneath the surface of a variety of ideas and topics that challenge the way that we approach our community and our world,” said Kawell. “We wanted our attendees to be able to see more than just the surface of the issues our speakers covered in their talks.”
This year’s event featured five speakers. There was Hynds’ talk about the difference between math and mathematical thinking. She used mathematical thinking to talk about everything from religion to basketball. Entrepreneur and leadership podcaster Jeremy Carter spoke about his experiences interviewing inspiring business leaders for his podcast Bold Future and changing the perceived metrics for success. Kimberly Carraway talked about her knowledge in the field of cognitive learning and explained to the audience that the human brain is shaped by all its day to day experiences, good or bad.
Political scientist Adamu Kofi Shauku discussed the insecurity that he believes lies beneath the surface of both sides of today’s racial tensions. He encouraged the audience to understand this insecurity and to let it shape the way they interact with people on both sides so that constructive conversations can happen.
The last speaker of the night was Bill DeMarco. A pilot in the United States Air Force and so-called “heroism specialist”, DeMarco described what makes a hero using the four H’s: Humble, Hungry, Hero, of the Heart, and talked about how everyone can be a hero if they live by those principles.
Kawell said he thought the event went very well this year. He said that the initial feedback he received from attendees among the 80 to 100 people in the audience, was overwhelmingly positive.
Presence and Recognition on a Global Level
The three events are evidence of a growing TEDx scene in Birmingham. This year’s TEDxBirmingham and TEDxSamfordU were both in their fourth year, while TEDxYouth@MBJH was in its third. A major reason for the growth of this scene is Sarah Parcak, the founding director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at UAB and an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology. Parcak, also a National Geographic fellow and TED senior fellow, was a co-organizer of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 iterations of TEDxBirmingham. She was also the 2016 TED Prize winner.
According to the TED website the annual prize is presented to a leader with a bold, creative wish to spark global change. TED invests $1 million in the prize winner’s idea. Parcak’s prize was invested in her online space archaeology platform, Global Xplorer, which, according to their website, “uses the power of crowd to analyze the incredible wealth of satellite images currently available to archaeologists.”
TEDxYouth@MBJH co-organizer Susan Brandt said that having a TED Prize winner as a member of the Birmingham TED scene is invaluable. She said that Parcak’s influence as a TED Senior Fellow and prize winner has helped to build the TED community in the city and has given a lot of credibility to the local TEDx events. Brandt attended TEDSummit this past summer in Banff, Canada for which Parcak was one of the speakers. “TEDSummit gathers the most engaged members of the global TED community for community brainstorms, discussions, performances, workshops, outdoor activities, and an eclectic program of mainstage talks,” according to the TEDSummit 2016 website.
“To know that she was there representing the city, UAB, and TEDxBirmingham it was amazing,” she said. “To see us have that presence and recognition on a global level was pretty amazing.”
Brandt said that another impact that Parcak had on the Birmingham TED community was to broaden horizons.
“It makes the world a lot smaller. Her Global Xplorer program came and was a part of TEDxYouth@MBJH and what is happening now is that our local event is being connected to world programs and global communities. They are seeing outside of what is going on in Mountain Brook and Birmingham and that growing connection is invaluable. That we have this opportunity, it just strengthens our community,” she said.
Another important factor in the development of the Birmingham TEDx scene is TED-Ed. Launched in 2012, TED-Ed is TED’s youth and education initiative and was created with the intention of supporting teachers and sparking the curiosity of students around the world.
In 2013 TED-Ed piloted the TED-Ed Club program in 100 schools worldwide. The program lets students engage in the TED experience through learning how to give a TED Talk. Brandt said that the TED-Ed clubs guide students through a curriculum that TED provides.
“There are 13 lessons that teach them presentation literacy, and then at the end of the curriculum they are required to give a TED style talk and that is uploaded to the TED-Ed YouTube channel,” Brandt said.
She said that participation in the club is not a given. Students must apply to become a member of the TED-Ed club, and Brandt said that the number of applicants has grown every year.
“We select students that we think will be able to participate and give it their all,” said Brandt. “This is not a class; they do not get a grade in it. It is completely on top of all of their regular school work, so the students that show they are really dedicated to the commitment, those are the students that we select and then we work with them all year.”
In 2014 Dylan Ferniany, then the gifted education teacher at Homewood Middle School, started the Homewood Middle School TED-Ed Club, piloting the program in Birmingham. In 2015, once the program was made publicly available, Brandt and fellow Mountain Brook Junior High teacher and TEDxYouth@MBJH co-organizer Andrew Cotten started the Mountain Brook Junior High TED-Ed club. Brandt said that Bluff Park Elementary, Green Valley Elementary, Greystone Elementary, Rocky Ridge Elementary, and Shades Mountain Elementary schools all have clubs, and that Hoover City Schools has made a commitment to try and get a TED-Ed Club in every school.
Ferniany is a key player in the youth and education side of the Birmingham TEDx Scene. Currently the program specialist for Gifted Education at Birmingham City Schools, she is also one of the core volunteers that organize TEDxBirmingham. Coker said that Ferniany makes sure there is engagement within the community for education. She is also in charge of the TEDxBirmingham Education Fellows, a program that co-organizers Parcak and Hamilton started when they took over the license for TEDxBirmingham in 2014. Brandt, who serves on the TEDxBirmingham Education Fellows committee under Ferniany, said a dozen or so educators are selected for the program every year.
“We have activities geared around events in the city that will strengthen the educator network. The main event, of course, is TEDxBirmingham,” said Brandt. “We also provide education for the fellow in regard to how to start TED-Ed clubs or a TEDxYouth event.”
In 2015 Ferniany was one of 28 teachers from 11 countries around the world selected for a program called the TED-Ed Innovative Educators. According to the TED-Ed blog, Ferniany and her fellow Innovative Educators completed eight weeks of training that explore everything about digital learning tools, including the power of video in the classroom and how to connect with schools around the globe to discuss ideas. Brandt said that the experience and ideas that she brought to Birmingham from the program were very beneficial in growing the TEDx community in the city.
“Anytime you have the opportunity to collaborate with educators from around the world that just builds your network,” said Brandt. “Dylan has been able to bring what she learned back to us and we took that information and those resources and we have been able to use them to build a cohort of educators in Birmingham and to grow and strengthen our network.”
During her talk about mathematical thinking at the TEDxSamforU Event, Hynds said that too much of something good is not always good. With three TEDx events in three weeks, some might question whether there might be too much TEDx in one place.
That is not the prevailing opinion within the Birmingham TEDx community, though. Kawell said that he and his team at Samford received a great deal of help from the TEDxBirmingham team.
“Matthew Hamilton, the head of TEDxBirmingham, advised us when we were restarting TEDxSamfordU in 2015. He invited one of us to attend the TEDxBirmingham event that year to learn about how they ran their event,” said Kawell. “I got to go to TEDxBirmingham in 2015 and it taught me a lot about how to manage our event on the attendee level and how the talks should be presented.”
Brandt agrees that three TEDx events is not too much for Birmingham. She said that there are lots of people who want to attend a TEDx event and they cannot, for whatever reason. She said that the different events may attract different audiences, but having multiple events gives Birmingham citizens multiple chances to experience the TEDx community in the city.
“As a whole, we are all on the same page. The TEDx community in Birmingham is strong in that it is not competitive. We are about helping and supporting each other and being part of a global community,” Brandt said.
TEDxBirmingham, TEDxYouth@MBJH, and TEDxSamfordU are all separate events, but they are also all connected to each other. The organizers of the Birmingham event helped the SamfordU team restart their program. The organizers of the Mountain Brook junior high group work with Dylan Ferniany on the TEDxBirmingham Educators Fellows program. Brandt said that Ferniany runs a booth at the TEDxYouth@MBJH event. The Birmingham TEDx community comes together to create a network to foster and spread ideas throughout the community, evoking the TED mantra, “Ideas Worth Spreading.”
“I love seeing the growing TEDx scene in Birmingham. It makes me excited for the future of our city,” said Kawell. “TED is all about spreading ideas and connecting people within communities. Birmingham itself is growing and developing in so many ways right now and I believe the rising TEDx scene is simply a product of that larger city growth. I hope to see more TEDx events in the future for Birmingham at different Universities and locations across the city.”
A complete list of this year’s speakers from TEDxYouth@MBJH and TEDxBirmingham can be found at tedxyouthmbjh.com and tedxbirmingham.org respectively. In addition, videos from TEDxYouth@MBJH will be posted on the event’s website in the coming weeks and a livestream of TEDxBirmingham 2017 can be found at livestream.com/TEDx/TEDxBirmingham2017. Videos from TEDxSamfordU were submitted to TED and will be posted on the TED YouTube account in the coming weeks.
A previous version of this article featured several errors; this is the corrected version.