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Blowing Minds, Having Fun at TEDxBeaconStreet

TEDxBeaconStreet promises to introduce a wealth of ideas to adults and kids, in a weekend of participatory events and super-short speeches.

There is a vocational path from balloon-twisting artist to NASA flight engineer, and this weekend Joseph Maydell will demonstrate that connection at TEDxBeaconStreet.

Instead of the squeaky, air-filled latex tubes Mr. Maydell once used in his old part-time gig to entertain kids, he’ll use a giant weather balloon and its attached camera and computer. During the balloon’s flight, families on the field at the Lincoln School in Brookline will get a real-time look at Earth’s beauty from 20 miles up in the atmosphere.

Inspired by the video coming from the International Space Station one night at work, Maydell knew he wanted to share with non-NASA folks the spectacular view of Earth from space. So last year he finished developing a weather balloon that’s simple enough to be used by students and amateurs.

As a TEDxBeaconStreet speaker, Maydell joins dozens of other creative minds in Boston’s first TEDx event to include children as well as adults as participants and audience members. Since the first TED conference ­in California in 1984 – originally a gathering of professionals in technology, entertainment, and design – the nonprofit has grown to include independently organized TEDx events, based on the TED model of innovative idea sharing. For the past two years, TEDxYouthDay events have been held around the world in observance of Universal Children’s Day in November.

TEDxBeaconStreet – named for the thoroughfare that links multiple communities in the metro area – will feature not only the famously brief speaker presentations on Nov. 17 and 18, but also a group of experiences that TED booster and TEDxBeaconStreet mastermind John Werner calls “Adventures.” From Sunday’s tour of part of MIT’s Media Lab, to some yet-to-be-scheduled events later in the year, such as a boomerang lesson and a look at Google in Kendall Square – the idea is to grow the audience’s role as participants.

“TED's given us, as consumers, a phenomenal platform to carry a message,” writes Ashley Stanley in an e-mail. She will speak to kids and adults on Saturday about Lovin’ Spoonfuls, the food rescue nonprofit she founded in Boston. “It's a very real time application of an old but very relevant principle, tikkun olam,” (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) she says.  The concept applies to Ms. Stanley’s organization too: Lovin’ Spoonfuls picks up not-quite-picture-perfect fresh food from retailers and delivers it to crisis centers and soup kitchens.

Stanley’s feeling is echoed in Mr. Werner’s hope that attendees at the conference will spread what they’ve learned. Saturday morning is specially tailored for 2nd through 8th graders and their parents, with events continuing into the evening. Some of Sunday’s events are geared toward high schoolers and will be simulcast at Google in Cambridge. While about 1,000 adults and children have already completed the online form to attend the conference, TEDxBeaconStreet has not yet closed registration. And the list of promised events to be held later is just as interesting as the weekend.

The schedule of speakers and Adventures, and their range of expertise, is mirrored in the wide array of minds associated with the event. More than 120 people – including a handful of high schoolers and college students – are credited as “curators” or as part of the “braintrust,” contributing support and ideas.  As well, the contributions of a group of more than 65 businesses and nonprofits have made it possible for conference attendees to experience everything for free. (By contrast, the four-day granddaddy of TED conferences in California costs $7,500 this winter and is sold out.)

It’s a stunning gathering of forces, and partially inspired by John Werner’s thinking about how he could make his work with TED more interesting to his own children.  As the managing director and chief mobilizing officer of Citizen Schools, Werner has long been working on education innovation. For TEDxBeaconStreet, he’s likening his position to being an air traffic controller, and when asked to quantify the amount of time he’s spent on the event, he demurs.

But then he does say something that I often stop to remind myself: “I do think Boston is unique and is off the scale in terms of amazing people….” says Werner. “We have an embarrassment of riches of talent.”

So even if you can’t be at the events on Nov. 17 and 18, video will be available for all the talks. If your kids have short attention spans, most of the talks will be shorter than 12 minutes.

But if you want to fully experience Maydell’s passion for sharing science and that weather balloon ­ – he will track it as it expands to 40 feet, bursts, and lands in the Atlantic Ocean, as Maydell expects – be prepared to wait a couple of hours. “If we’re lucky, it will get washed up on a beach, or a fishing boat will find it,” says Maydell. 

I’m pulling for that.

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