Catalyst propels high school students' TEDx skills

TEDxGCU President Havilah Houston welcomes students to the Catalyst event Friday.

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

Those 70 high school students sitting in a lecture hall Friday, many of them painfully afraid of public speaking, couldn’t have fathomed what they were seeing right before their eyes.

Houston said she was an introvert in high school until she attended a similar event.

It might have been their future – or at least what their future could be if they take the first step to the stage.

Because it wasn’t that long ago that the Grand Canyon University students behind the microphone were just like many of them – shy, unsure, trying to figure it out.

Now, they exuded confidence and poise as they explained how to give “TED talks,” the featured attractions of the annual TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity event their committee plans, organizes and operates. This year’s, which will be called “Power,” is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, April 8, in GCU Arena, and tickets are available here.

TEDxGCU President Havilah Houston said afterward she was an introvert in high school – hard to believe, given how outgoing she is today – until she attended a similar event. Now she considers TEDx the single most influential experience of her college career.

TEDxGCU Vice President of Operations and Development Luis Peña Espinoza explains the importance of not straying off topic — the "throughline."

Luis Peña Espinoza, TEDxGCU Vice President of Operations and Development, later told a hilarious story that illuminated how little he knew about TEDx before joining the committee: He thought volunteering meant he was raising his hand to give a TED talk.

“What’s your idea?” said the student in the booth, playing along.

“Uh, I don’t have one. I’ll get back to you on that,” was Peña’s embarrassed reply.

Undaunted, he went to the informational meeting and got involved. Look at where he is today as the result of what he calls a “happy accident.”

“TEDx has been a way to professionally establish myself, working with so many different teams and individuals,” he said. “It’s great to not just make connections but gain professional experience. I think a lot of clubs do one or the other, but this one does both so well.

Peña assists students in forming a topic to present.

“I feel so prepared for the workforce, for my career (he wants to be a software engineer), just meeting new people in general in my day-to-day life.”

Oh, and one other thing:

“I feel confident that whenever I do have a great idea and apply for a TED talk, I can do it.”

Friday’s event, called Catalyst, is a partnership between K12 Educational Development and TEDxGCU. (Here's a slideshow.) Houston, Peña and other members of the committee spent five hours Friday giving the students from five high schools – Coronado, La Hoya, Paradise Valley, Bourgade Catholic and Medical Engineering Technology Academy – a tour of GCU’s Canyon Ventures entrepreneurship incubator and then a tutorial on what makes for an effective TED talk.

The students' tour of Canyon Ventures included a visit with Weston Smith of Lux Longboards (center).

It was almost triple the size of the previous Catalyst turnout. They heard a condensed version of the coaching TEDxGCU speakers receive from the GCU students, who developed the guidelines on their own after reviewing some ideas from the parent TED organization (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design).

“It is so easy to recruit for this event because everybody loves TED talks,” said Cori Araza, Director of K12 STEM Outreach for K12 Educational Development. “Teachers see the connection with that. They love something that teaches what they’re teaching.”

The most teachable moments were three comments from visiting teachers.

TEDxGCU committee member JD Docusin (right) congratulates his team members after their presentation.

One said she’d never seen college students so engaged with her high school students.

“To her, that was the high point of the event,” Araza said. “She can say something, but when a college student says it, they have so much more influence.”

A marketing teacher loved how the content reflected exactly what she tells her students: short and sweet, get to the point, sell the sparkle.

And one teacher came up to Houston afterward and asked about further reviewing the Catalyst content.

That content was split into five segments:

A high school student gives his TED talk.

Types of Talks: Most memorably, Houston shared a video of a man who demonstrated with a wash basin how to use fewer paper towels.

  • The Throughline: Basically, how to grab the audience’s attention in the first 15 seconds and stay on point.
  • The Structure: Use of visuals and memorizing the talk.
  • The Curation: Includes the comforting idea that the audience wants you to succeed.
  • Talk like TED: Members of the TEDxGCU committee were stationed with the 11 groups as they worked through activities, and now it was time to have one or two members of each committee deliver a miniature (five minutes or fewer rather than the usual 18-minute limit) TED talk.
  • The TEDxGCU team was thrilled by how the event turned out. It was nearly three times as big as the first time the group did it.

    The topics of the 11 talks were dominated by self-help ideas – stress among high school students, improving self-esteem, not comparing yourself to others, the effect of sleep deprivation on depression/anxiety, managing cellphone usage, avoiding negativity, etc.

    When they were finished, the students accessed a QR code to pick a winner, and their choice was a student who displayed the same fear of public speaking that no doubt haunts many of them – but she readily admitted her discomfort and kept going with her talk about why the lion is her favorite animal: It’s not the fastest, smartest or strongest member of the jungle, but it thinks it is.

    “She inspired me,” Peña said. “Her lion persevered, and I’m going to try to be more like her going forward.”

    But the inspiration went both ways.

    Houston’s takeaway from the event: “The power our team has to instill confidence into the next generation is a lot stronger than we realized.”

    All the next generation has to do is be willing to listen … and then take the first step.

    Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].

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    Related content:

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    GCU Today: New tradition suits GCU's stylish TEDx production

    GCU Today: Students' coaching of speakers is the talk of TEDx

    GCU Today: Students' TEDx production gets a standing ovation

    GCU Today: Managing TEDx event is a pivotal student experience

    GCU Today: Speakers, listeners 'part of something great' at TEDx

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