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TEDxStanford highlights breakthroughs in research and creativity, Stanford-style

Saturday's TEDxStanford featured awe-inspiring ideas and displays of creativity. Among them: a presentation about a solar house that "teaches" its inhabitants, a hip-hop dance that smashes Asian stereotypes and a talk about Stanford's model football program.

They sacrificed a spectacular sunny Saturday afternoon by the hundreds, forgoing all else to sit in a darkened hall to witness hours of intense lectures and art works. Happily. Eagerly. Hungrily.

"Saturdays happen every week. This only happens once a year," said student Tyler Davis, '14, who did not miss a minute of the seven-plus hour event. 

For Davis and more than 700 others, it was a chance to take a mental "break" from studies and work obligations to get an only-at-Stanford fix of ideas and inspiration. The audience was richly rewarded with an infusion of creativity and advice from other Stanford minds at TEDxStanford, the second annual all-day intellectual smorgasbord in the tradition of the wildly popular TED talks.

"This is so important to maintaining a sense of direction," said Davis, who is majoring in computer science. "I come away from this thinking, these people are so awesome. The people at Stanford now, or the ones that just graduated, have such amazing ideas. I come away thinking, I can do this too."

Among the crowd favorites: A toy shark that can fly through the air. A solar house that doesn't just save power, but also teaches its inhabitants how to be more energy-conscious. A hip-hop dance that obliterates Asian stereotypes. A football program propelled by academic competitiveness. A new alum revitalizing the city of Stockton. Stanford faculty research that can personalize pharmaceuticals, build touch-sensitive robots and improve human hearing aids based on elephant communication.

"What I like best is that so many diverse individuals, all from right here at Stanford, are gathered together in one day to communicate so many incredible ideas," said Georgi Diankov, a doctoral candidate in chemistry. A fan of TED talks online, Diankov wanted to "check out the local talent" and gain new insight on his Saturday afternoon.

Biggest and boldest ideas

The 27 TEDxStanford speakers and performers had just 20 minutes or less each to convey their biggest, boldest ideas under the theme of "Break Through." In lectures and slide shows, dances and skits, they showed that insecurities and preconceived notions could be challenged through sub-themes of "research," "re-invent" and "re-create."

Stanford's TEDx event is an independent offspring of the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference held annually in Monterey, Calif., since 1984. The nonprofit has dedicated itself to "ideas worth spreading" by inviting people from around the world to give the talks of their lives in less than 20 minutes. TED has helped to democratize the information by posting all its talks for free online.

In addition to the live audience Saturday, hundreds more watched a live webcast of the event. The TEDxStanford talks will also be archived and available online. Co-hosts Juju Chang, a TV news correspondent, and David Hornik, a lawyer who lectures on intellectual property issues at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, introduced the presenters throughout the day.

"You can see that interdisciplinary harmony," said Chang. "A lot of the science embodies art, and art embodies science. There are dazzling displays of physical intelligence and emotional intelligence."

One of the more popular speakers, student Derek Ouyang, represented the 100-student team currently building a "zero-energy" house for the collegiate solar decathalon. Ouyang explained that the team members have changed course and redesigned their energy-efficient house dozens of times as new thinking has influenced their product design. Rather than settling simply for a home that will consume no traditional power, they decided to also employ features that would train the home's inhabitants "to make decisions for sustainability" – replacing a light switch, for example, with a color-toned touch pad that conveys in an instant how much power is being consumed with the lights on.

'Time to change'

"We are taking a human-centered approach, to give people tools to become architects of their own happiness," Ouyang said. "Ignorance stops here. It is time to change our culture and values around energy, and do it from the comfort of our own home."

Along a common theme of sustainability and the environment, biology Professor William Gilly described how studies of jumbo squid in the Pacific Ocean reveal the dramatic impacts that climate change is having on the species. In a very recent phenomenon directly attributed to ocean warming and oxygen depletion, he said, jumbo squid are showing up along the shores of Canada and Alaska, adapting to ocean changes and following new sources of food. The ocean surface, he said, has become overcrowded with predators escaping minimal oxygen at lower levels, forcing mass relocations and migrations of species.

Communication Professor Cliff Nass spoke about the dangers of "chronic multitasking" via electronic communication. He outlined the findings from his studies of the social habits of 3,400 pre-pubescent girls. His research shows that without adequate "face-to-face" social interaction early in life, people have serious social and emotional deficits when they are older. "The moral of the story," according to Nass, "is make face-to-face time sacred. And bring back the saying we don't hear often enough. 'Look at me when I talk to you.' "

Bioengineering and genetics Professor Russ Altman spoke of pharmacological advances that, thanks to the ability to cheaply read DNA, will eventually allow customization to detect inherited drug sensitivities in all of us. "People don't respond to drugs in the same way," Altman said. But he can foresee a time "when your physician prescribes a drug, and you can make decisions based on your inherited drug response."

Creativity born from failure

Blake English, an alumnus with dual degrees in product design and robotics, displayed his bestselling inflatable flying toy sharks, which "swam" through the CEMEX Auditorium as he described his creative process. "One of the cornerstones of the Stanford product design process is that you should fail early and fail often, because it is all too easy for self-doubt to kill an idea," English said. "I would like to make it less easy for children to give up on creativity. If we can make it easier for children to create objects they see in their minds, we can bridge the gap between can and can not."

Adding further inspiration was Stanford Football Head Coach David Shaw, who explained the football program's philosophy. "The best way to inspire people to do something big is to say it'll never happen," he said of early aspirations for Stanford Football when its season was 1-11. "We said, what if we went around the country and found the best football players in the country who were going to compete like crazy in the classroom and compete like crazy in football, and not understand the difference. If we can do that, obviously, we will win football games."

Shaw noted that Stanford is now a model for colleges everywhere, setting records such as achieving a 100 percent graduation rate while competing in a BCS-level bowl game, or having two graduates in engineering who are also first-round NFL draft picks. "All they know is success. In the classroom and on the football field … and our alumni can be proud that we did not compromise our standards to do it."

Many TEDxStanford attendees were motivated by talks from Michael Tubbs, who successfully ran for Stockton City Council immediately upon graduating from Stanford; Natalia Duong, who has used dance and kinesthetic empathy to aid Agent Orange victims in Vietnam; and Zipho Sikhakhane, who is leading business development throughout African markets.

"It is mind-blowing," said Diontrey Thompson, associate director of the Black Community Services Center, who was still taking notes at the second break. "We get so busy at Stanford, you can forget that people are doing so many amazing things. It makes you think of limitless possibilities. It is about thinking outside the box – things you can do to help push students, help push colleagues. I want to go back and tell them, you can do more. We can all do more."

The event was produced by the Office of Public Affairs in partnership with the Graduate School of Business, the School of Earth Sciences and Precourt Institute for Energy.

The videos of 2013 TEDxStanford will be available soon at http://tedx.stanford.edu/2013/.