Recently, my TEDx talk on the importance of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) literacy was released on YouTube! I’m very happy with the result and I hope you’ll let me know what you think. How do you think we can work together to foster a more STEM literate society?
You can watch it here:
This blog post will cover what it was like to give a TEDx talk (for me) and responses to a few common criticisms I’ve received. In short, giving a TEDx talk is both exhausting and exhilarating. It’s a great way to learn about yourself, what you care about, and whether or not you can stand the pressure of giving a (hopefully) memorized fifteen minute presentation in front of a couple thousand people.
What's It Like to Give a TEDx Talk?
First things first. TEDx events are independently organized gatherings where a diverse set of live TED-like talks are shared with a community. These talks are short (sixteen minutes or less) and outlines must be submitted ahead of time. We were not told what to talk about, however we were give a theme (ours was “Disruption”) from which to be inspired. Also, per TED requirements, no TEDx speakers can be paid to give their talks.
Writing my talk was easily the hardest part of the TEDx process. One mantra I try to follow is that when you are given a platform to speak your opinion, don’t waste it. Because of this, I wanted to speak on something I care very much about, even if it might be unpopular in some circles. And when things you say in public may be controversial, you better make sure you’ve done your research. This took time and plenty of “thought energy,” which you likely understand if you’ve ever sat down to write an essay. Writing is hard. Writing on something you really care about that’s going to be said in front of a live audience is harder.
Some of the questions I asked myself while writing my talk included:
- What should I talk about? Space Exploration? Science literacy? Women in STEM?
- These are all things that I care about, but STEM literacy is one that is extremely relevant right now.
- What’s my goal? What do I want people to walk away with?
- I want all people to feel like they can understand STEM topics. I want to give them actionable takeaways to help promote STEM literacy in their own communities.
- Who am I willing to call out? (Who am I willing to piss off?)
- What topics should I include?
- Topics that are not controversial in the scientific sense, but are controversial in the political sense.
- Why am I doing this? This is really hard. I don't have any good ideas. OMG this is going to be terrible.
- Because I have opinions that are perfectly valid and facts to back them up. You can do this.
For my TEDx event, I had to submit a rough draft for my talk about six weeks in advance, a full outline a couple weeks prior, and we did a dry run-through the day of the event. We were also given the option to speak with a speech coach, which I did. She helped us think of creative ways to engage the audience and make our talks more effective.
Unless you wanted to hold note cards in your hands (which, in my opinion, looks bad and is distracting) you had to memorize your speech. For my sixteen minute-long talk, it took seven days to memorize, practicing a couple hours each day. In the week leading up to the event, I could be found talking to myself in my room like a crazy person.
Right before I stepped on stage to give my talk, I felt like I was going to barf. This was a new feeling for me. I’ve been a little nervous to give speeches before, but I always had notes in front of me in case I stumbled. If I froze on stage in front of 1200 people, without any notes to lend me my next few words, things were going to get super awkward. I literally felt like I was going to barf. Thinking that I might literally barf on stage made the feeling of almost-barfing worse.
But as soon as I was on that stage and started talking, I felt better. I was actually really excited to finally give the speech that I had spent so much time on - to tell everyone in that audience things that I found really interesting.
Once I stepped off stage, I was elated. After months of preparation and hours of practice, I didn’t fall on my face, I didn’t forget my words, and I felt very happy with the talk. It was the biggest adrenaline rush you can imagine. It’s an “I can’t believe I just did that” type of feeling.
As of publishing this post, my talk has received over 15,000 views on YouTube. That is an incredible feeling and it makes me feel like my hard work paid off. Hopefully this talk started meaningful discussions about STEM literacy, what that means for different topics, and how we can foster it in communities around the country.
Response to Common Criticisms
With the outpouring of positive feedback came a few common criticisms. Here are my responses.
1. "You lost half of your audience by calling out Republican representatives who are STEM illiterate on Climate Change"
I agree that I should have emphasized that STEM illiteracy is not a Republican problem. I will be sure to do this next time I speak on this topic. However, we should recognize that there are many STEM literate Republican Americans who are also irritated with the representatives I called out. I mean, give these guys some credit, will ya?
Also, I didn't have much of a choice. I have asked people to give examples of other STEM related topics that are equally one-sided politically, but on the Democratic side. People have offered the topic of GMO’s as an issue where Democrats are STEM-illiterate. This is a problematic example for many reasons. The decision to be in favor or against GMO’s is muddled with economic, environmental, and human health issues just to name a few. I mean, just hearing the word “Monsanto” brings up disgruntled feelings on both sides of the aisle.
The decision to “support” GMO’s is by no means just a scientific issue. However, to “believe” in human caused climate change is just a scientific issue. You can see why this is an important distinction and why I chose not to go into GMO’s in my talk.
2. "You are basically saying 'If you don't agree with my conclusions, you are STEM illiterate'"
This doesn't necessarily deserve a comment, but I will offer a great response that a supportive YouTuber left on a similar comment on my video: "You are entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts."
3. "You're just going along with the masses. Many years ago, most scientists believed the Earth was flat!"
Actually this is a common myth: look up the “myth of the flat Earth.” But I get your point, sometimes scientists are wrong. This is an important thing to keep in mind, but I would offer the following correction: “Sometimes some scientists are wrong.” Today, we have the scientific method and a very powerful tool called peer review. These are strategies that allow us to test other scientists’ ideas. These strategies enable us to prove and disprove hypotheses and find the scientists that are wrong. We didn't always have these strategies.
I certainly find it interesting that 95% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is true. However, what I find most compelling is the trend of more and more climate scientists convincing themselves that human-caused climate change is true. The consensus is growing.
And on other topics, I will point out that if I was indeed, “going with the masses” of popular opinion then this talk would have been unnecessary.
Thank you to Dustin Fernandes who found me on Instagram and invited me to talk at the Oregon State University TEDx event. To the rest of the Oregon State University TEDx organizers (Aaron LaVigne and Vinay Bikkina), for creating such a professional event to be a part of. To my boyfriend, Tommy, who helped me through my writing blocks and made me feel like I had something important to speak about. To my parents, who would have thought I'd done an amazing job even if I'd thrown up all over the stage. And a huge thanks to Phil Plait (aka @BadAstronomer) for covering my talk on his Slate blog: “Why America Needs STEM Literacy.” If you are interested in learning more about STEM literacy topics, I strongly encourage you to follow Phil Plait. He's my idol in this area.
And lastly, thanks to all of you for watching, for your comments, and for your continued support.