TEDxUVA Features Prof. Castleman and Others From the Batten School


“Sights Unseen” was the theme at this year’s TEDxUVA event, where scientists, photographers, lawyers, professors and entrepreneurs gathered to present their view of the often-unseen sights in everyday life.

In its 4th year, TEDxUVA invites speakers to share their inspiring stories of creativity, invention, and change with the UVA community. This year, the Batten School was integral to the event, with policy at the center of discussions. First Year MPP student Cara Mumford was instrumental in organizing the event as a member of the TEDxUVA Speakers Committee.

Greeted by fresh donuts and hot coffee, students, faculty, and visitors to Charlottesville settled in early on a Saturday morning to listen to the presentations. Among the speakers were Professors Ben Castleman and Kirsten Gelsdorf, who shared powerful stories drawing from research and personal experience.

Ben Castleman, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the Curry School of Education and the Batten School, made the case for behavioral interventions as a means to improve access to secondary education for low-income populations in the United States. He discussed the gaps that exist in educational attainment, despite major increases in education spending by the government in the 20th century.

“There are profound and widening inequalities in education,” he said, referencing the 30-million word gap that separates low-income populations from everyone else in the United States.

Castleman’s point was simple: we need to improve access to education in the United States, and we need to do so in a way that is low-cost, scalable, sustainable and high impact. He proposed behavioral nudges as an effective, evidence-based solution. In his research, an intervention as simple as sending text message reminders about college application deadlines was enough to improve attendance rates among low-income participants. Castleman’s ideas extended beyond sending text messages. He believes simple, low-cost interventions could help to improve access to quality college advising as well.

Kirsten Gelsdorf, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School, followed by sharing personal moments from past humanitarian missions in Haiti and Indonesia with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. After responding to crises throughout the world, she has come to understand that the aid sent from wealthier nations to countries in need is often unnecessary and burdensome. While thoughtful, piles of clothes, stuffed animals and other goods often ended up unused and forgotten.

“Imagine an ambulance shows up full of teddy bears,” she said. “There is one simple way that people who want to help can help. It’s cold, hard cash.”

Gelsdorf continued to make the case for cash as a more effective tool to help those in need. Not only does it help the recipient to keep his or her dignity, it is way to jumpstart local economies. Many attendees left ready to contribute to one of the many organizations that use cash transfers.