Bold ideas take flight at TEDxNortheasternU

by Greg St. Martin

North­eastern senior Justin Dowd said a rev­o­lu­tion is coming in space flight—and he has a front row seat to prove it. In 2012, he won the inter­na­tional Race to Space com­pe­ti­tion offered through the global news­paper chain Metro in con­junc­tion with Space Expe­di­tion Cor­po­ra­tion, a pri­vate com­pany known as SXC. Next year, he said, he’ll strap into the two-​​person rocket-​​powered space­craft XCOR Lynx, blast off, and reach space in five min­utes by trav­eling at 2,000 miles per hour.

Dowd, S’14, a math and physics com­bined major, said advance­ments in com­mer­cial space flight in the coming decades are primed to have major impli­ca­tions for travel, global com­merce, sci­ence, the envi­ron­ment, and clean energy, which could be drawn from the sun and trans­mitted back to earth.

“The world is about to get a lot smaller. Orbital travel will allow you to set foot on the oppo­site side of the planet in two hours,” Dowd told about 100 North­eastern students—and many others watching online—on Sat­urday at TEDxNorth­east­ernU, held in Raytheon Amphithe­ater. “Easy access orbit will give a whole new meaning to same-​​day delivery—and long-​​distance relationships.”

All of this, Dowd said, rein­forces the idea that “an abyss of unknowns” still exists in the bound­aries of knowl­edge across all sub­jects, from his­tory to sci­ence. “That can only mean one thing: the world is not what it seems. It just can’t be. There are more ques­tions than answers,” Dowd said.

Lead orga­nizer Mary Tobin, DMSB’17, kicked off pro­gram by explaining how TEDxNorth­east­ernU was born. In August, she tweeted to North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun, sug­gesting that the uni­ver­sity host the event. Aoun tweeted back that stu­dents should take the lead and run with the idea. From there, Tobin con­tacted Hugh Courtney, dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness, and the event started to take shape.

“I’m not sug­gesting that you tweet all your ideas to our won­derful pres­i­dent, but I am sug­gesting that you look for the non­tra­di­tional route,” she said.

In his intro­duc­tory remarks, Pres­i­dent Aoun spoke about the many myths that exist about higher edu­ca­tion, including the myth that the majority of learners are tra­di­tional col­lege stu­dents. He said trans­for­ma­tive changes are taking place in higher edu­ca­tion, and the 18– to 22-​​year-​​olds living on campus are no longer the majority. In fact, they make up only 15 per­cent of the today’s learners. The vast majority are non-​​traditional learners, a group that includes adults, part-​​time stu­dents, working pro­fes­sionals, and non-​​campus res­i­dents. This shift in par­tic­ular, he said, will have major impli­ca­tions for the future of higher edu­ca­tion; most insti­tu­tions focus only the tra­di­tional 15 per­cent, but the 85 per­cent need an edu­ca­tion system that adapts to their need too.

Another change, he said, is the onset of per­son­al­ized edu­ca­tion, the learning model of which is shifting from a teacher-​​centric system to a learner-​​centered system. “The future from this per­spec­tive is bright because the learners are in the driver seat, and the insti­tu­tions that don’t adapt are going to dis­ap­pear,” Aoun said.

TEDx events rep­re­sent an ini­tia­tive of the TED con­fer­ence, which is devoted to the con­cept of “Ideas Worth Sharing.” TEDx events are inde­pen­dently orga­nized, held all over the world, and designed to bring people together to learn about new ideas bub­bling up in their local com­mu­ni­ties. TEDxNorth­east­ernU fea­tured a range of speakers who dis­cussed their inno­v­a­tive ideas, research, and experiences—all of which dove­tailed with the event’s theme, Unknown Knowns, aimed at pro­moting the explo­ration of ideas atten­dees may not realize they know. The event was pri­marily spon­sored by Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

Throughout the after­noon, sev­eral speakers dis­cussed how their endeavors are having a pos­i­tive impact on people’s lives. North­eastern alumnus Mar­quis Cabrera shared how his resolve, drive, and pas­sion to trans­form the nation’s foster care system led him to found Foster Skills, a social enter­prise focused on sup­porting and empow­ering foster chil­dren. Cabrera drew inspi­ra­tion from the suc­cesses of other entre­pre­neurs and sug­gested that those inter­ested in launching their own social ven­tures use a method­ology he fol­lowed: busi­ness, impact, brand. He said social entre­pre­neurs must do their home­work on the soci­etal prob­lems they aim to fix, develop a strategy for max­i­mizing the effec­tive­ness of their ven­tures, and realize that their star­tups are much more than a logo—rather, they’re an exten­sion of the founders and must estab­lish cred­i­bility to grow and gain support.

John Pepper, who founded the regional bur­rito chain Boloco in 1997, described his 2001 deci­sion to break with con­ven­tional wisdom in the fast-​​food industry by raising the min­imum wage for hourly employees. The risky move, he said, was the result of a change in his mindset. Instead of asking him­self why people would work for such low wages and where a job like this could lead them, Pepper started thinking about how higher wages could trans­form his employees’ lives.

Raising wages, it turned out, also bol­stered the company’s bottom line. “It’s incred­ible what hap­pened. In the five years that fol­lowed, we had our best sales, our best profits, we earned the right to start growing again, and we even found some more investors,” he said.

Among the other speakers were North­eastern Uni­ver­sity psy­chology pro­fessor David DeSteno, whose research focuses on the role of emo­tion in social cog­ni­tion and social behavior; Emily Green, CEO and chief lunch lady of Smart Lunches, Inc., an online meal ser­vice that helps fam­i­lies by bringing fresh, nutri­tious, high-​​quality meals to chil­dren; and North­eastern com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies major Amy Henion, AMD’14, whose pas­sion for design and sus­tain­able living has inspired her to build her own tiny house within the next five years in order to attain housing secu­rity, lessen depen­dence on mate­rial goods, and diminish her impact on the environment.

The TEDxNorth­east­ernU talks will soon be posted to the TEDx YouTube page.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on January 27, 2014.

College of Science
Featured Faculty