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Photo: Caroline Kim

Stuck between classes, homework and exams? TEDxPenn challenges students to take a step back and take up curiosity as a form of entertainment. 

On April 12, an audience of 1,000 will gather in the Annenberg Center to hear 17 individuals speak at the TEDxPenn conference. TEDxPenn is an independent, student-organized TED event aimed at empowering the audience through ideas. The conference highlights individuals who have made profound achievements in a diverse range of fields and can share insights on “what lies ahead” in the sciences, humanities, technology and the arts.

“I interpret this theme as more of a question rather than a statement. What we seek to do is to reveal novel findings in various fields, to place into question — into the hands of the audience — what might be the next step,” College sophomore Omar Pena said, TEDxPenn’s director of speaker and content. He added that the conference topic was intentionally kept open-ended to accommodate a wide variety of speakers.

Unlike other speaker conferences, TEDx is an involved event. Attendees can expect to collaborate with one another and engage with the content.

“They can understand some of the coolest things happening around presented very clearly to them,” said Wharton and College junior Osama Ahmed, director of public relations and marketing at TEDxPenn.

The TEDxPenn team of 31 spent the majority of the first semester conducting a “rigorous” recruitment process. The team dedicated hours to researching and interviewing candidates, reading articles, scholarly journals, current events and blog posts, to create the ideal TEDx experience. The content is primarily geared towards Penn students, faculty and alumni, though the team expects a large turnout from the greater Philadelphia community.

“We try to showcase content that otherwise doesn’t typically see a large or public audience. We look for really awe-inspiring talks of interest that might contradict or put into question the commonly held beliefs of Penn students,” Pena said.

Francis Menotti, a theatrical stage magician, will be speaking about how magic is applicable to adults. Menotti believes that as adults grow older, their systems of belief become overly firmed by the tasks of everyday life.

“I like Menotti’s talk because he doesn’t ponder what lies ahead in magic or in one area or another. Rather, he gives us a framework for thinking about what lies ahead, which is believing in the unbelievable, or exploring what you’ve always known to be false. Sometimes we find truth in things that we think aren’t worth believing,” Pena said.

Penn Electrical and Bioengineering professor Danielle Bassett will be speaking about how she collaborated with an artist to help her visualize complex data from her research. Bassett believes that what lies ahead in science should include the education of scientists and interdisciplinary integration.

“Every detail of the speaker series has been curated to perfection,” Ahmed said. The TEDx team carefully considered the logical progression of the speakers, their content and their time allotment. “It’s going to be a very holistic experience that brings together diverse experiences but in a very cohesive manner. In that sense it’s definitely more than just any other speaker conference,” he added.

TEDxPenn prioritizes the diversity of its speakers and audience members, who represent a range of disciplines, backgrounds and geographies. Ahmed said he believes that typical speaker audience members self-discriminate based on their interests or course of study, therefore limiting the scope of networking opportunities and ideas to be learned.

“We felt that this was lacking in the sense of interdisciplinary collaboration,” Ahmed said.

In addition to the 18-minute talks, there will be a Q&A period with the speakers and a networking breakout session. Upon registering, attendees are asked to provide their LinkedIn profile information. The team is also in the process of developing a TEDxPenn mobile app, which it hopes will help like-minded attendees connect.

“We want to make it more than just a place where you listen to something, get inspired and then do nothing about it. We want people to go ahead and do things after what they hear inspires them,” Ahmed said. “We think so far this is a need that really hasn’t been met on campus.”

The TEDxPenn2015 conference has been scaled up 900 percent from its 2013 predecessor, which was capped at 100 attendees because of a licensing issue. Ticket sales were so popular that there was an application process for attendees.

“That runs against what TEDx should be about," said Ahmed. "We want to inspire a broad audience.”

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