Sixth TEDxUM explores 'constructive interference'

Madeline Bath/Daily
Kinesiology freshman Charlie Leonard performs at at the sixth annual TedxUofM at the Power Center on Friday. Buy this photo

By Emma Kinery, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 22, 2015

“Constructive Interference” was the theme at play during the sixth annual TEDxUofM event Friday at the Power Center. The event drew 1,200 people and featured 14 keynote speakers, all whom are affiliated with the University.

Constructive interference, in physical application, refers to waves meeting when traveling along the same medium in opposite directions. The TEDx conference transformed this concept to discuss how the confluence of conflicting ideas can shape each of the originals for the better.

Broken into four sessions of three to four speakers each, the day-long event included performances by students and local acts and lunch provided by local venues. Those who purchased tickets beforehand were able to attend a dinner after the event supplied by Zingerman’s, which allowed the audience to meet the speakers.

Throughout the day, organizers promoted communicating with its participants through social media. People were encouraged to send any questions they had for the speakers via Twitter with the hashtag #TEDxUofM. After their official lectures, the speakers answered these questions in interviews, which the University then posted on its Snapchat story.

Prior to the event, attendees were asked to complete the sentence “The source of my energy is...” Their answers were printed on their nametags to spark conversation. LSA sophomore Anthony Okaneme’s nametag said his source of energy was “drive.”

Some speakers discussed overcoming hardships in their respective fields, others groundbreaking work in areas such as technology and health and others of combining different passions to solve problems. University professors, who discussed using outside passions to enhance their students’ learning experience, gave two of the most popular talks.

Herbert Winful, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, spoke about incorporating music into one of his engineering courses after one of his students died in a car crash. In the talk, “How Hidden Passions Can Connect People,” Winful explained that combining the two disciplines helped his engineering students cope with and pay homage to the student.

Winful said it was relatively easy for him to choose the theme for his talk because the event’s theme of constructive interference was an idea that he teaches every day.

“I teach optics, and in optics we deal with waves, and waves get constructive interference,” Winful said in an interview after the talk. “I thought, wait, maybe I’ll combine what I do in engineering with my passion for music, and see how they’ll interfere constructively.”

Winful also discussed how music has helped him overcome other struggles throughout his life. He admitted that this might be unexpected for someone whose career focuses on optics and photonics, but added that his grandfather was a music composer, and subsequently music has played a significant role in his life.

He ended his talk by fulfilling a dream of his — performing a song of his own composition titled “Spirit Dreams” on the piano. He said he is currently teaching a class on risk-taking and it only felt natural to end the talk on that note.

“I really liked Herbert Winful’s whole discussion on engineering and art connecting and stuff, and how you can bridge the path and find out things you don’t know by taking things that aren’t usually seen together and combining them,” Okaneme said, adding that the talk was one of his favorites Saturday.

Comprehensive Studies Lecturer Jill Halpern’s talk, “Beyond STEM: The Whole Flower Classroom,” was memorable for both her message and delivery. Halpern spoke in rhymes for a portion of the presentation, mimicking the form of Dr. Seuss’ “The Sneetches.”

She used the metaphor of a flower’s growth to describe the community she built within her classroom. Halpern teaches Calculus II, which she said was formerly known as “the most failed class at the ‘U’ ” by students — now, she said, the course ratio yields roughly 103 students with A’s and B’s, and only one with a grade falling in the D and E range.

Halpern told the story of how she was lenient toward a student who was caught cheating by discussing her motives for cheating instead of just doling out punishment. This process, Halpern said, allowed the student to grow and later admit that even though she was tempted to cheat again, she did not.

Halpern incorporated humor throughout her talk, which kept the audience captivated and laughing.

LSA senior Anuhya Bhogineni, whose energy source was “hope,” said she has watched TED videos online and had been to two other TEDx events, but was eager to attend the event Friday because all of the speakers were affiliated with the University. Bhogineni pointed out Halpern’s talk as one of her favorites.

Other talks throughout the day centered on the constructive interference within social media.

Cliff Lampe, associate professor at the School of Information, and Researcher Kyra Gaunt, a member of the University’s ethnomusicology faculty, took different approaches to this concept.

Lampe argued against the common narrative that social media is bad for people by noting its benefits in his talk, “Social Media is Good For You.” He said most people spend the majority of their time around people like themselves, but can interact with a more diverse range of people through social media, gaining new information and perspectives with which they would otherwise not come into contact.

He acknowledged that anonymous social media platforms like YikYak can be places for cyber bullying; however, he added that they also serve as forums where people can gain help for things they would feel uncomfortable turning to their friends for, such as suicide.

In summary, Lampe said, social media is a place for “social grooming.” In some cases, he said, people can feel loved by others through sites such as Facebook.

“One of the important parts of social media is this social grooming effect,” Lampe said. “The likes, the votes, the shares, the comments, what we consider banal, can be extremely important.”

While Lampe said he does not think that, on his birthday, all of his 500 Facebook friends would send him a cake, and he probably would not want 500 cakes, if they had not posted “Happy Birthday” on his wall, they probably would have not reached out to him at all.

After the talk, Lampe explained why he chose to speak on the positive aspects of social media.

“When I was talking with students, I realized that a lot of them felt really bad about their social media use,” Lampe said. “A lot of them were talking about how they’d gotten off Facebook, and they felt ashamed of their social media use, and I thought ‘you know what? I’m just going to do a very simple social media is good for you talk,’ and that’s the one (the organizers) really clicked with.”

Though Gaunt agreed in her talk, “Broadcasting Black Girls’ Net Worth,” that the social grooming aspect of social media is important to study, she said this is not so for the positive reasons that Lampe described.

Gaunt, who earned her Ph.D. in musicology and ethnomusicology from the University, began her speech by recounting her audition process in the Power Center years before she broke out into an opera song. From there, using her personal anecdote of overcoming her feelings of low self-worth, she transitioned into her research today on Black girls younger than 18 twerking in YouTube videos online.

While Lampe discussed how social grooming helps build people up, Gaunt spoke on how it deteriorates young African American girls’ self worth. She said 40 percent of the videos that fit into this category are uploaded by men, and the comments section sexualizes and degrades the minors featured in the video, which is harmful for their self-confidence.

Okaneme, the LSA sophomore, said he would like to see more events like TEDxUM.

“I’ve always really enjoyed going to TED talks and have watched them online,” he said. “The chance to do this on campus sounded great. It’s been really interesting, there’s a lot of different speakers from across different disciplines, and I thought that was really nice.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the title of Prof. Herbert Winful’s original composition. It is “Spirit Dreams.”