Q&A TED Fellows

Classes to the masses: Fellows Friday with Nina Tandon

Posted by: Karen Eng

Nina Tandon

When TED2012 Senior Fellow Nina Tandon (watch her TED Talk) isn’t researching how electrical stimulation encourages tissue growth at Columbia University, she’s teaching bioelectricity across town at Cooper Union. Now, with TEDinClass, she’s been connecting students to the TED community using TED’s Live Conversation platform – starting an exchange of ideas with the world at large that has taken off in a big way.

How did the idea to have your students host TED Live Conversations come about?

In the bioelectricity class I teach at Cooper Union, I have undergrads and masters’ students ages 20 and up. It’s an electrical engineering elective where we learn about the electricity within biological systems.

TED hosted me for a Live Conversation, which many of the other Fellows have led as well. As I was doing it, I realized it was similar to the class blog I’d been doing in the classroom with my students. This blog is published online and is, in theory, public. But it’s small. It’s contained. And people don’t really find it. So I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of cool to step it up a notch with my students and have them really engage more actively with the public, as opposed to creating this blog that’s more of a container and an extension of the classroom? So we came up with this idea of “external participation,” and really putting the students on the hook for not only what they say in the classroom and how well they absorb the knowledge in the classroom, but how well they engage with that material in the outside world.

Every week, we have two students that each lead a conversation, so two conversations per week. And that’ll go on for nine weeks because there are 18 students. Right now, we’re into our 13th week. Some of the most popular topics have been Andrew Leader’s How are different body parts connected to the emotions we traditionally associate with them?, Howard Yee’s Can technology replace human intelligence?, Simon Kuvis’s How can computer models help us build intuition? and Sophie Rand’s Can we ever know how another person “senses” the world?

Josh Mayourian in Nina Tandon's bioelectricity class.

Josh Mayourian in Nina Tandon’s bioelectricity class.Click to see larger size. Photo: Noemi Charlotte Thieves

What have the challenges been?

The challenge with TED Conversations was: How do we present a subject that’s so specific in such a way that it’s also relevant to a global community, to participants who maybe don’t have any scientific knowledge at all?

This turned out to be a fun exercise. For example, the class was talking about nerves and senses. We were talking about how, in our eyes and ears, we have cells that create sensation by being able to sense mechanical disturbances or lights, let’s say. And so in a way, those are information producers. Then we have nerves that transmit that information, say, to the brain. Those are information propagators. Then there is the third one in the brain where we have information processing. The students said: “That’s kind of like life. Who do you want to be? Do you want to be the person who creates information, or do you want to be the person who propagates it, or do you want to be the person who processes it?”

Putting this conversation to the TED community turned a talk about cells into a huge philosophical discussion about the nature of social networks. Are you a person who spreads information, or are you a person who produces it? It was a beautiful thing.

I think this is a perfect example of creating an analogy between a biological system and the larger world. And I think it still holds relevance for the classroom, because what we’ve learned in the classroom is expanded into something almost like a dinner conversation, where the classroom topic serves as a launching pad. Exercising the capacity for lateral thinking is a critical skill going forward.

And of course, opening up the discussion to the TED community means some ridiculously cool people – including Fellows Greg Gage, Oliver Medvedik, James Patten, Luke Hutchison, Awab Alvi, and Colleen Flanigan – have just hopped on. Some TED speakers, such as David Bismark, have been contributing. It’s almost like bringing guest speakers into the class for a panel discussion with the students. But also, in a way, it’s like having the students teach.

What’s the response been like from the TED community, and what do you think makes conversations successful?

It’s been amazing. Our TEDinClass Conversations have been trending in the top five for a month straight, and each conversation is being viewed in up to 60 countries. And each conversation is reaching about half a million Facebook users via shares. So there is something really cool going on. I mean, obviously the TED team has been really supportive, but then from that point on, it’s really the student-led conversation itself that takes on a life of its own. I’m really happy to watch how it’s developing.

I’m not sure what the magic formula is, but I think that hooking people into the conversations with thoughtful, pithy questions and the students’ collective enthusiasm and commitment both play a large part in what makes the conversations successful. Each week, the students really get into the extrapolations of class ideas into this “broader realm” as we brainstorm possible questions. Once the conversations are launched, they each jump in and help each other respond to comments, in turn encouraging more responses, and so on — it’s a bit of a virtuous cycle.

Poem in response to Andrew Leader's Live Conversation.

Daniel Hehir writes a poem in response to Andrew Leader’s conversation, How are different body parts connected to the emotions we traditionally associate with them?.Click to see larger size. Photo: Noemi Charlotte Thieves

Did you tell your students what you wanted the outcome to be, going in?

I didn’t tell them what I wanted, except for them to engage. I guess I really had pictured that it would be an interesting exercise in and of itself, like the act of conversation itself. Some of the students were stressed out that they wouldn’t have answers, that they would feel like they might not have the expertise to engage in the conversation, so they felt really shy about it. And so I said, “Well, you’re not necessarily giving an answer – but you are facilitating a discussion.”

So far it’s been going really well. Once they got over their initial shyness, they started to really get into the whole process, especially as they’re seeing the quality and diversity of people on the TED side that are contributing actively to their conversations.

And what are the students themselves saying about the experience?

Well, every week we’re interviewing them. We have a videographer who comes in to document the process. For the first 20 minutes of class, we have a discussion about how it went, and he’s been recording that. We’re going to be very interested in seeing, by the end of the semester, what the progression was like. Right now, we’re really at the beginning stages, seeing them transitioning from being terrified to really getting high — they look physically euphoric — after the latest conversation we hosted.

One of my students was unsure at first, but then she hosted a great conversation. The following week, she couldn’t stop smiling. She said that it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of her intellectual life.

Another benefit is that I’m getting to know my students faster than I have in past years, because I got to see their TED profiles, I get to see their conversations. I’m getting to know their names a lot faster. I know their hobbies! I have a ukelele player, a long-distance bike rider. So that’s another thing to recommend about having an online community as part of the classroom.

Matthew wielder, Sophie Rand, and Simon Khuvis

Matthew Wielder, Sophie Rand and Simon Khuvis. Click to see larger size. Photo: Noemi Charlotte Thieves

Any plans to roll this out in other classrooms?

Yes – TED 2011 Senior Fellow Jessica Green‘s doing this too, using a slightly different model, where instead of having each student each week post a conversation, it’s the entire class, or a segment of the class, with one leader. As a pilot, we’re calling it TEDinClass. Depending on what we learn from this, it might fun to roll out further.

We’re doing actually a bunch of collaborations with TED with this classroom. As part of the class we’re hosting a TEDx as well, and some students are doing the conversations. And the students are going to be contributing to TEDx. Logan Smalley at TED was also saying, well, if some of the videos we produce are more conducive for TED-Ed, maybe we can collaborate there too. Just being in New York facilitates some of these really fast collaborations, because we can literally go to the office and sit down and hash things out. I’ve been so impressed with how fast we’ve turned this around. With literally an idea in October, we thought about it a little bit, and then by January we were on our way.