I've had the great privilege of participating in the first two Aspen Challenges. The first was in Los Angeles and the most recently in Denver. In both cases I came away emotionally beat and yet completely enthused by being exposed to the boundless curiosity, energy, and can-do determination of young bright minds. In short, it was a lot of work and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
The Aspen Challenge is a program designed to expose teams of high school students to real life issues and to encourage them to work together to design and implement innovative solutions. Eight students from each of 20 schools are brought together for two days of presentations by a selected group of speakers. The speakers are recognized leaders in their own field of expertise. The role of the speakers is to describe a particular issue and to issue a challenge. Topics range widely, from societal issues of the inner city to exploration of outer space. Each school team then chooses a challenge to pursue. After some amount of time the teams come together to present their selected challenge and proposed solution to a panel of judges. The judges vote and choose three teams from the twenty that will appear on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
I'm no stranger to public speaking. I've given many presentations and I'm a TED veteran many times over. In the 30 years of TED I've been on the main stage some eight times. I've had my share of standing ovations from some of the most affluent and influential people on this planet. I'm not easily intimidated by an audience's size or make up -- but the Aspen Challenge format is very different. The challengers become the challenged.
As a "challenger" you are asking the "teams" to share your passions, to follow your dream, and to contribute their time and energy to helping solve an issue that you have defined as important. It's really not that easy to design a good challenge. In science there is a saying that answers are relatively easy to come by, but asking the right question is extremely difficult. After the challenge is defined, it's performance time and you are allotted a few minutes on stage to make your case.
It's you against the clock AND you against the other challengers. You are pouring your heart and soul out about your life's work to a young audience that might reject you altogether. It's very possible that NONE of the 20 teams will choose your challenge. As much as I know that rejection would be "okay," to me it would be crushing.
A common view of science is that it's a cold, unemotional, and fact-driven career. The truth is that many scientists and engineers are driven by a deep and insatiable thirst for discovery and knowledge.
My topic is oceans. I'm at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. Our whole "reason for being" is to explore and understand all that there is about the sea and its relationship to humanity. We are a scientific organization rooted in the power of curiosity-driven research. We aren't an environmental organization. We don't advocate for any particular cause. But in the case of the global oceans, the paths through the unknown paved with scientific facts and the path driven by societal needs are crossing. The oceans are in trouble and some of that trouble is caused by humans.
A healthy ocean is critical to healthy life on this planet. No matter where we live, the oceans impact our everyday lives. Climate and weather patterns conditioned by the ocean waters are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Conversely, no matter where we live, we impact the oceans. Over time, human activity has managed to change the chemistry and temperature of seawater. It's a wonderfully intimate relationship. Anyone with an aquarium knows that if you fiddle with the chemistry and temperature of the water, you're asking for trouble. It's this simple -- if we kill the oceans, we kill ourselves. What to do?
My dear friend Richard Saul Wurman (founder of TED Conferences and much much more) routinely reminds me that "understanding precedes action." Yes we need to manage our relationship with the sea but we need to make decisions and policies based on fact -- not just emotion. If we aren't careful we will love this planet to death.
To date we've explored much less than 10 percent of the oceans. The oceans cover 70 percent of our earth so in reality we are living on an unknown planet. Given the promise and the peril of our relationship with the sea, this seems absurd - but it's true. How can we begin to manage something as complicated as the sea if we don't yet know what's out there?
We take the oceans for granted and assume that they are too big to fail. At the same time, moneys available from the government for ocean research is dwindling and the competition for a piece of that shrinking funding pie is fierce. Support from the private sector is becoming increasingly important because it allows scientists and engineers to be creative, take risks, and follow their curiosity. But we need a movement. The public needs to be informed of what we know, what we don't know, and what we need to know about our changing life support system, and therein lies my challenge to the students -- help find a way to mobilize the public at large about ocean issues. This is not just about "save the whales" or "save the dolphins"... this is about "save us."
In Los Angeles I gave my pitch. LA is on the Pacific Ocean. Three of the twenty teams chose my challenge and I am very proud of all of them. One team made it all the way to Aspen. I can't say enough about the dedication of the students or of their teachers. They produced amazing solutions. To me, Denver was tougher. Denver is a long way from the sea but something worked right. I just found out that four of the twenty teams chose the ocean challenge. Seven out of 40 isn't so bad.
I count the opportunity to interact with these students as one of the high points of my career and honestly I would give up the TED stage for these Aspen Challenges anytime. My role, as tough as it was for me, was simply to share my own passions. My reward was not only to witness the excitement and potential of so many young bright minds, but, to realize that these kids have the potential and capability to shape their own destiny. More importantly they accept the challenge to work together to make this planet better place to live.