9 Engineering TED Talks to Watch Now

TED Talks, FTW

With over 2,100 talks posted online for free viewing, the TED phenomenon has grown into a landmark of the Internet-enabled learning environment. “Ideas worth spreading,” as TED organizers have it, presented in 18 minutes or less, the talks aspire to show the world as we thought we knew it in new lights, provoking change or learning from local to global levels.

Engineering inhabits a non-trivial corner of TED-world, fitting in that “Technology, Education, and Design” form the thematic axis of the project. The talks below highlight the diversity and ingeniousness of the engineering-related presentations to be sampled.

In short, they’re awesome, in all kinds of different ways. You will not regret a minute you spend watching one, two, or even all nine of them.


How to engineer a viral music video

The marble run to end all marble runs is built in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse for a one-take, four-minute music video. A fever-dream of the band OK Go, famous for synchronized dancing on treadmills, this elaborate contraption integrates seamlessly with their song “This Too Shall Pass.” Built by Adam Sadowsky and his team, the device drives home engineering truths such as, “small stuff stinks … but it’s essential,” “physics is a cruel mistress,” and “put reliable stuff last.”

April 2010; 987,944 views.


These robots come to the rescue after a disaster

Response time is everything when it comes to recovering from a disaster. Robotics expert Robin Murphy, an engineering professor at Texas A&M, explains how cutting one day off the front end of disaster response can reduce the recovery calendar by three years. “Robots,” she shows, “can make a disaster go away faster.” Coupling aerial, marine, and ground robots with big-pipe data transmission capabilities amplifies the scope and accelerates the pace of recovery to astonishing degrees, providing as well a wealth of information to use in building ever-more resilient structures in the future.

May 2015; 792,977 views.


The cheap all-terrain wheelchair

The very youthful Amos Winter, an MIT-trained mechanical engineer, describes going to market with an all-terrain, person-powered wheelchair costing less than $200 built out of universally available bicycle parts. A revelation in mobility for handicapped people in the developing world, the wheelchair utilizes detachable, hand-operated levers to generate variable torque suitable for negotiating all manner of bumpy, uneven ground conditions. In this wheelchair, “the person is the complex machine.”

June 2012; 796,111 views


How germs travel on planes – and how we can stop them

2015 Intel Science and Engineering Fair winner Raymond Wang, all of 17 years old, pioneered a low-cost filtration solution to clean the air on airplanes. His screw-in, molded plastic filter reduces pathogen inhalation by a factor of 55 and improves fresh air quality by 190 percent. Using computers to simulate the fluid dynamics of germs circulating in airplanes’ existing airflow patterns, he engineered a part to change these patterns and create a highly “personalized breathing zone” for each individual passenger.

November 2015; 498,427 views.


A tool to fix one of the most dangerous moments in surgery

“Puncture is everywhere,” notes graduate engineering student Nikolai Begg, accounting for over 30,000 post-surgery complications each year. His spring-loaded medical drill retracts the sharp end of a tissue-puncturing device within 4/100ths of a second, far faster than surgeons can stop drilling on their own. Useful for procedures involving any form of tissue – skin, bone, muscle, etc. – the tool utilizes physics to find a safer way into the interior of the human body.

November 2013; 1,259,861 views


Engineering a better life for all

Social entrepreneur Cat Laine describes the work of her non-profit, AIDG, which stands for Appropriate Infrastructure and Development Group. Though recently wound down, AIDG was situated between micro-finance programs and mid-scale development efforts. It worked to leverage low-cost engineering solutions to address challenges in the developing world around renewable energy, sanitation, and clean water. A small-scale generator, for example, captures energy from the same torquing wind effects that brought down the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and stores it as electricity for later use.

October 2009; 149,692 views.


Building blocks that blink, beep, and teach

Lebanese engineer Ayah Bdeir showcases littleBits, electronic modules she designed in the tradition of concrete blocks and LEGO’s to make the job of building transistors into child’s play. Magnetic contacts make it impossible to connect four different types of modules in anything other than the right way to complete a circuit. For anything from a simple, turning machine to a wireless-enabled device attached to the Internet of Things, littleBits opens up electronic tool-making to everyone.

February 2012; 1,061,803 views.


The greatest machine that never was

British computer science evangelist John Graham-Cumming explains in accessible, amusing detail the history and hypothetical workings of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. A steam-powered, mechanical computer the size of a locomotive, the Analytical Engine inspired STEM heroine Ada Lovelace to imagine a future for computers far beyond just mathematical operations. Capable of executing programs, storing data, and performing algorithmic operations, the Analytical Engine laid the groundwork for the later work of Alan Turing and the electronic computers that permeate our daily life.

March 2012; 1,045,890 views.


To create for the ages, let’s combine art and engineering

The Pantheon in Rome inspired Bran Ferren, former president of R&D at Disney, to see how design can blend art and engineering to create new forms of useful beauty. A way to bring substance to light and wind, the Pantheon blends insights and technologies from diverse fields and serves as a lens through which to assess current candidates for transformative impact. Ferren’s answer is automated vehicles, and his reasons for saying so are surprising and persuasive.

March 2014; 961,944 views.


That's it

What’s your favorite? Do you have any other TED talks to add to the list? For learning at home or in the classroom, or as inspiration and enjoyment, these are hard to beat.

Please share with anyone who you think might be interested.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

Our new Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering outreach books, What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide.