Outreach & Public Purpose

Teach-In 2014: Discovering the Unknown

TEDxSpence brought together speakers and performers for engagement on the stage and in the classroom.
Once a year, Spence suspends its academic routines for a day in favor of something different entirely. With the annual Teach-In program, the school community—students, faculty and staff—coalesces around a topic or a theme outside the bounds of the standard curriculum.

Since its launch five years ago, Teach-In topics have included the study of global conflict, expeditions to the various corners of New York City and a plan to learn about civics through canvassing polling places on Election Day.

The 2014 Teach-In was among the most ambitious yet, as Spence hosted 31 guest speakers to deliver TED talks and facilitate 74 small- group workshops for students in Grades 4–12. The planning committee, led by Director of Outreach and Public Purpose José De Jesús and Grade 6 parent Lara Stein, designed the day with the theme of “Discovering the Unknown.” This Teach-In was rich in idea-sharing, problem-solving and debate with a range of topics as vast as the theme suggests: what is the “unknown” and how do we go about discovering it? For the celebrated oceanographer David Gallo, one of the day’s Main Stage speakers, it means building robots to map the ocean floor; for Ben Harrison, who is an expert of regenerative medicine at Wake Forest, it is using 3D printing technology for the transplant of human organs. Whether the speakers are using their discoveries and innovations to save human, animal and plant lives like the “Penguin Lady” Dyan de Napoli or they are bringing the magic of video games to the physical plane like Anki developer Boris Sofman, their presentations took the Spence community on an insightful journey.

The day’s program utilized the vehicle of 10-minute TED talks to widely share ideas and accomplishments with the goal of inspiring and also incorporating what Spence does best: putting bright and interested young minds in the room with talented experts equally as eager to educate and spark those minds. TEDxSpence revealed a myriad of disciplines and projects. None was too big or too strange for consideration, from an exploration of paranormal phenomena in the White House with Jeff Belanger to the world’s first real-life cyborg available for sale and download courtesy of neuroscientist Greg Gage. Author and photographer T.M. Rives shed light on some of the hidden gems and mysteries in our own backyard, while Princeton’s Renée Hlozek had us look into the vast cosmos and shared some of the latest discoveries in deep space.

“TEDxSpence allowed us as a community to focus on the awe- some power of ideas,” De Jesús said. “Ideas matter. Ideas move people to think and act. These amazing speakers challenged us as a community not only to respect and explore interesting ideas, but in fact, they inspired us to contribute ideas of our own.”
In the spirit of being both an audience member and a contributor to this special day of idea-sharing, four “Spencies” told their own stories of discernment. In each case, the speakers touched on the ways in which self-discovery is an important tool for outward revelation and helps us understand the otherwise unknown. In his talk, Director of Health Education Guido Sanchez focused on the notion of “enjoying dissonance,” or in other words, embracing those things in life and about oneself that appear on the surface to be at odds. An acrostic poem of his name revealed that at age 10 he at once thought himself to be delightful and also impatient, genius and also oblivious. In self-reflection, Sanchez reconciles these contradictions of identity and is comfortable in his complicated skin because he has learned to enjoy dissonance.

Accomplished photojournalist Tara Todras-Whitehill ’95 discussed giving up a career as an applied engineer to pick up her camera. Todras-Whitehill shared how she faced a personal moment of truth while visiting terror-plagued Beirut, Lebanon: “I had to decide which way to run—toward the massive explosion or away from it.” Her photos did not serve justice to the ensuing scene of chaos, but she learned about the courage it takes to bring such truth to light. In the time since her first “trial by fire,” Todras-Whitehill has honed her skills as a photographer and storyteller, and she continues to boldly go wherever she needs to in order to capture powerful images.
When fifth-grader Ria Jervis stepped into the spotlight on the Main Stage, no one could have expected the range of emotions she lobbed into the audience to steal the show. The poise and maturity of the day’s youngest TED speaker were evident from the moment she looked up from her iPad and began her story. Her poetic, eloquent and deeply introspective commentary described her journey as a black student at Spence. Ria, who describes Spence as her family, faces questions and confrontation as a child who looks different from the others in that family. She explained that while exploring her complex identity, she discovered a powerful ally who gave her “a window and a mirror” to see the world and also to develop her sense of self while combating social constructs. Ria’s insightful story and heartfelt tribute to her Spence mentor continues to echo beyond Teach-In, garnering attention through the TEDx online video.

Adding depth to the assemblage of Main Stage speakers and acts was a rich program of workshops, where students put ideas into practice. These hands-on projects included performing wrestling moves with South Bronx champion girls’ wrestling coach Robert Carrillo, and building a coral reef sculpture with environmentalist/artist Colleen Flanigan to resemble the ones she is using to rescue live coral in the ocean.
Cally Harper, a scientist who recently made headlines for her revelation about how nectar-feeding bats retrieve nectar from flowers, drove home the idea that discovery really comes from the power of observation. By looking closely, she developed a hypothesis that proved true and added to the knowledge and understanding of the scientific community and the world.

The power of creative pursuits was featured in several Main Stage musical performances. Spence senior Caroline Gorman performed an original song, multilayered and live-mixed in front of the audience, and Broadway-bound musician and performer Lourds Lane shared musical numbers and her story about being her own superhero and finding her own unique song. Closing out the Main Stage portion of the event, singer-songwriter-troubadour-social worker Morley performed the inspiring original song ‘Women of Hope.’ She concluded: “From everyone who spoke here today, it’s really about taking that leap into the deep end and just not apologizing for your dreams or for having a vision or even a little spark; follow that—even just within—and be the one.”

After a day spent listening to and experiencing hands-on presentations by veteran TED speakers and a few of Spence’s own voices, Morley’s behest to “be the one” became resolute among many attendees. Teach-In’s TEDxSpence was a day worth sharing.

To experience the TEDxSpence Main Stage for yourself, visit our YouTube playlist.