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April 19, 2011

TEDx rethinks the life of the mind

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As of Sunday, the Life of the Mind has been reinvented, thanks to 15 U of C students who brought a branch of the TED conference to campus.

TEDx, a localized non-profit branch of the famous TED Talks, debuted at the University last Sunday with a bevy of notable speakers and performance acts, under the banner, “Reinventing the Life of the Mind.” The “x” signifies the mutability and independence of the event, which caters its program to the university that hosts it.

A team of 15 students from the event’s on-campus RSO, TEDxUChicago, alongside volunteers and sponsors, organized the event into four series over the course of the day, each with several 18-minute presentations.

Third-year and one of TEDxUChicago’s co-directors Gümar Vaca Sittic described the event’s theme as a synthesis between U of C ideals and TED values.

“Many of the speakers and professors did focus on things that we’re taught on a daily basis,” he said. “But they were trying to see [the University’s curriculum] from different perspectives, so they engaged students and inspired them by being different from the norm.”

The program of 14 speakers included presentations from a blind architect, a fourth-year psychology major in the College, and the first double-amputee to summit Mount Everest, as well as luminaries from fields as diverse as paleontology and cybernetics. Even former president of Bolivia Gonzalo Sånchez de Lozada had his 18 minutes, as a smattering of CEOs, scholars, and U of C alumni and professors each took their turn.

The talks covered a wide range of topics, including drug legalization and socially responsible entrepreneurship. Gabrielle Lyon, co-founder of the science education nonprofit Project Exploration, moderated and emceed the event.

She associated each series of speakers with one of the University application’s essay prompts for this year, including the cryptic “Find x.”

Lyon said that the conference tapped into an already extant culture on campus.

“It was funny to me when I went through the course catalog, I came across the description of the SOSC course ‘Mind,’” she said. “You could have just taken that paragraph and stuck it in the program today. It speaks to the way that curiosity and liberal arts…are ingrained into the life here.”

Sunday marked the first TEDx event in which students competed for a speaker position, according to second-year Richard Pichardo, who directed the contest. From a field of 50 candidates, of which 45 were U of C undergraduate or graduate students, a panel of judges selected fourth-year psychology major Bruno Cabral.

Funding and support came from Student Government, corporate sponsors like Apple, which donated computer equipment, and ticket revenues. The RSO contacted speakers through the University’s Board of Trustees and selected them based on their previous TED experience. Speakers were compensated for lodging and transportation costs only, a requirement for TEDx certification.

TED worked closely with the RSO in the planning stages, said Vaca Sittic, laying out guidelines and providing video segments from other TEDx and TED conferences.

First-year Bianca Tamez-Beccino was happy she purchased a $55 VIP ticket, which granted her access to a catered reception with the speakers. “I really loved it. I had a really good time, and I’m glad that I came,” she said, citing her interactions with other TEDx patrons as a highlight. “I didn’t care that they fed me, but the people are great.”

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