Students and professors showcase ideas at TEDxMcGill

McGill/News by
Choucri Bechir

The second annual TEDxMcGill conference took place on Saturday, with Henry Mintzberg, the acclaimed McGill business professor and 15 others sharing their ideas. Themed “Relentless Curiosity,” the talks centred on rediscovering the creativity and imagination that is commonplace in children but often lost in adults. The diverse for the event held at the Marché Bonsecours included presentations on user-created applications that transform the classroom experience, a personal account of establishing a school and safe haven for abused Nicaraguan girls, and a serial entrepreneur’s ambition to use social network sites to save one million lives.

TEDxMcGill was conceptualized last year when two students applied for a licence to organize an independent McGill event under the TED brand. TED, an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, is a non-profit organization that hosts global conferences featuring prominent speakers such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and primatologist Jane Goodall.   

TEDxMcGill shares the parent organization’s vision of “ideas worth spreading.” The volunteer student team planned the event with a $70,000 budget over the past eight months and sought funding from various Montreal companies and McGill groups.  

Student speakers were encouraged to apply through a standard application process, while faculty and professional speakers were chosen based on their backgrounds and areas of expertise. Speakers were given nine to 15 minutes and creative freedom to talk about their ideas, research, or narratives.  

“We go for the best, most interesting speakers and ones that balance each other. We try to get a breakdown of 50 per cent students, 25 per cent professors and faculty, and 25 per cent special guests not affiliated with McGill,” said Jan Florjanczyk, a computer science Master’s student at McGill and executive organizer of TEDxMcGill. “It was a very difficult process for us to choose, but we could usually tell if someone was going to be a good speaker.”

One of the best-received talks was entrepreneur Amruth Bagali Ravindranath’s presentation on creating multimedia technology that helps educators teach math, language, and social sciences to primary school students. Ravindranath reflected on his own childhood experiences as a bored student in the classroom when developing classroom learning tools that would put teachers at the centre of education.

“Can we do to interactive education content what bloggers did to writing?” asked Ravindranath. “Our programs democratize the process of creation, it lets you edit and improve upon others’ educational animation and teaching tools in a way similar to Wikipedia. We see that by combining teachers with technology, we get adaptive education.”

While several other talks also demonstrated technology’s contributions to society, personal narratives equally engaged the audience. Salma Moolji, U2 international development studies, spoke about her emotional experience opening a school for abused, poverty-stricken girls in a Nicaraguan slum. Moolji was motivated after hearing the tragic story of a 13-year-old girl who hung herself from an orchard tree due to sexual and physical abuse. While the school closed within three years due to a lack of infrastructure, an overstretched police force, and gang problems, Moolji was moved by its lasting impact.

“The unfortunate reality is that not all development projects succeed, and not all those that succeed will survive,” Moolji said. “This is what motivates me to study development. Failure is only a part of success. The school, while it ran, did incredible things for many people.”

TED and TEDx conferences are no strangers to passionate statements, and LemonadeBoy Inc. CEO and social media business consultant Com Mirza’s goal of saving one million lives was probably the most zealous.

After collecting $5,000 from donators, Mirza and two other friends travelled to Pakistan for three weeks to help a new person each day. By the end of the visit, they managed to save 125 lives by organizing and funding vaccinations, sustainable food projects, and eye cataract surgeries. Mirza hopes to eventually save 999,875 more lives.

“Average people can make a difference when we unify our voices. Every time our voices send out one single message—it is very powerful,” Mirza said. “All we need are five things—an Internet connection, a personal computer, an email address, a profile on a social network, and active participation—to generate income for our cause.”

Though the conference lasted for over seven hours, the sold-out audience remained enthusiastic until the end. Tanya Mulamula, attendees coordinator, was relieved to see the positive reception from the conference participants and was particularly impressed by the student speakers.

“Inspiration, passion, and a connection to the audience are what TED talks are about. Even through the computer screen, somebody is able to keep you listening for 15 minutes,” Mulamula said. “Student speakers tend to be captivating because they’re very young and they’re quite nervous, so their passion for what they’re saying tends to be way stronger.”