ORIAS Speakers Bureau

Speakers Bureau

What is the ORIAS Speakers Bureau?

The ORIAS Speakers Bureau is a cohort of graduate students who offer 45-minute presentations specifically geared to students from middle school to community college. Each talk models important Common Core Social Studies skills, such as analysis of texts and use of evidence to build an argument. Many talks include content that dovetails with History Social-Science Content Standards, while all talks offer opportunities for inquiry-based student engagement, as outlined in the new History-Social Science Framework. Most presentations are also appropriate for more than one grade level or subject, because they address broad questions while focusing on specific events and topics.


Borders and the Syrian "Refugee Crisis" in Jordan

Speaker: Heba AlNajada

How do different maps provide windows onto different worldviews? And how do these worldviews affect the human experience of moving from one place to another in the real world? This talk begins with an exploration of maps, then shifts to examine two models of hosting people displaced by war, oppression, and dispossession. The first is the experience of Syrians hosted in camps set up by the UNHCR near the Syrian-Jordanian border; the second is spaces of hospitality in which Syrians are offered sanctuary in Palestinian households - households that are, themselves, in a camp on squatted land.

Students will be invited to consider the ways maps shape our views of the world, including the impact of political and national borders on people’s everyday lives.  Though the talk is primarily focused on the current Syrian refugees, it introduces broad concepts that will be useful in any discussion of cross-border migration.

About the Speaker

Heba was born in Jordan and lived in multiple cities before going back to Jordan. Trained and educated as an architect and urban designer, she worked in Palestinian informal settlements before starting her PhD in Architecture History at UC Berkeley. Her family history and work played a major role in her interest in the question of migration, refugee camps, borders and the longer histories of the Middle East (most specifically the Levant). She received her undergraduate degree in Architecture at the University of Jordan and her masters degree in Urban Design from the University of Sheffield. Outside of studying and teaching, she loves cooking with her family and playing with her son.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 7th – 12th grade and community college. Some elements may be difficult for younger students, but the visual and exploratory nature of the presentation would be engaging for them.

Preparation: The speaker asks that the teacher complete a short (20-minute) school- or classroom-mapping exercise with students the day before the presentation. 

Also, familiarity with the current refugee crisis and some study of the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism in the Middle East would deepen student understanding of parts of the presentation, but is not necessary. Teacher is also welcome to confer with speaker ahead of time about topics.

Courses: World History, Ethnic Studies, Psychology, Geography, Anthropology, Art & Architecture History


Remembering Jewish Eastern Europe: Yizkor books and community memory after the Holocaust

Speaker: Jordan Brown

What is lost when a community is destroyed? How do those who once called this community home cope with their loss? Can the work of memory heal wounds that might otherwise fester? Can collective remembering rescue "home" from the abyss of exile? These and other similar questions are becoming increasingly important as upheavals of all sorts—social, economic, political, climatic—alter the face of our world at an ever-quickening pace.

Nevertheless, these challenges are not entirely unprecedented. After the Holocaust, the displaced progeny of destroyed Eastern European Jewish communities stood face-to-face with the void of a vanished world. Confronted with the utter ruin of communities often hundreds of years old, these survivors chose not to abandon their history, their world, but rather to recreate it in monumental collective works of remembrance known as Yizkor books. By studying these extraordinary documents—at once scholarly and personal, journalistic and creative—we come to understand the artistic and cultural resources that these orphaned communities drew upon in order to raise continuity and renewal from the ashes of destruction.

About the Speaker

Jordan is a graduate student anthropologist at UC-Berkeley. A California native, he first encountered Eastern European Jewish civilization via its linguistic arm, in the form of Leo Rosten's unparalleled The Joys of Yiddish. Since then, the Yiddish language and the imagined commonwealth it animates have revealed themselves to be endless sources of insight into the inextricable complexities of cultural specificity and universalism, tradition and change, and the making of meaning in a shifting world. When Jordan is not studying the Eastern European cultural landscape of seven to twenty decades ago, he is usually studying the Eastern Mediterranean cultural landscape of seven to twenty millennia ago. These two explorations have more in common than you might think.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 9th – 12th grade and community college 

Preparation: There is no preparation necessary, but students who have some familiarity with the events of the Holocaust will benefit more from the presentation.

Also, this presentation would be particularly meaningful to students who have recently read Night, by Elie Weisel, Maus by Art Spiegelman, or other similar literature.

Courses: World History, Ethnic Studies, Psychology, World Literature


Sourcing Digital China

Speaker: Chris Chan

Billions of us generate data through our real and virtual activities each day. But what is data, how is it used, and what impacts does it have? Where is digital data stored, and what does it mean to live and work in a digital world? And how are digital innovations and their applications unique in China?

This talk explores these questions through the lens of contemporary China, where the transformation of a digital society is happening in conjunction with rapid urban development.

About the Speaker

Chris is an anthropologist and PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. Trained as an engineer with a background in both sciences and humanities, his research interests include the overlap of new technologies with urban transformation in contemporary China.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 10th – 12th grade and community college
Note: If you teach younger students and opt to book this speaker, there is one instance of very mild PG-type profanity in a short video used in this presentation.

Preparation: The speaker will provide a brief overview of contemporary conditions in China, but some background knowledge about modern China will make this talk more accessible. Teachers may want to ask the speaker to provide a small subset of infographics or maps to look at with students the day before the talk.

Courses: World History, Economics, Human Geography


Coping with Pressure: the consequences of losing legs for daddy long-legs

Speaker: Ignacio Escalante

Animals constantly face many pressures in their environment, including potential predators and parasites. To survive, animals have evolved some surprisingly extreme defensive strategies. For example, many animals voluntarily release body parts (legs, tails, etc.) when grabbed by predators. By doing so, they survive and escape, but are there consequences to losing body parts? How can the impacts of these survival strategies be studied?

This talk explores how scientists can measure the impacts of losing legs in the locomotion, physiology, ecology, and reproduction of daddy long-legs. By describing his experience doing fieldwork in the Costa Rican and Californian forests, and also lab work at UC Berkeley, the speaker describes how this topic can be studied.

About the Speaker

Ignacio Escalante is a Costa Rican field biologist, currently a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. He earned his BS and MS degree at the University of Costa Rica, both in biology. While exploring the tropical environments, he became interested in how animals respond to environmental pressures. His current research explores the ways animals have evolved defensive strategies to survive encounters with predators.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 6th – 12th grade and community college, though more accessible to students in high school and above. Middle school students may need preparation in terms of vocabulary.

Preparation: Students would benefit from prior learning about evolution and natural selection. The teacher may want to request a vocabulary list to help prepare students ahead of time.

Courses: Biology or AP Biology, Environmental Science, any course in which you want to teach about methods of scientific inquiry.

Note: This talk can also be presented in Spanish.


Soviet Communism and the Movies

Speaker: Dominick Lawton

Ironically, many of the techniques used in modern advertising and Hollywood films were developed in the Soviet Union as part of the broader propaganda project of politically educating the Soviet masses. Working for the newly created Soviet state in the 1920s, film-maker Sergei Eisenstein developed many of the techniques of modern filmmaking, which have now become standardized worldwide. This talk connects students' pre-existing familiarity with the vocabulary of cinema (via film, TV, or YouTube) to the particular — and, probably, unfamiliar — Soviet historical moment in which these techniques were actually developed. The historical connections between our modern media environment and early Soviet culture and politics lays the groundwork for further conversations about the power and place of art in society.

About this Speaker

Dominick was born in Australia and raised first in the United Kingdom, then in St. Louis. He learned the Russian alphabet in high school in Missouri, then started studying Russian literature, culture, and the Russian language after his first exposure to Sergei Eisenstein as a student at Yale University. He has taught English to middle and high school students in Russia, and worked in environmental advocacy in New Mexico. He is now working towards a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Berkeley. Besides Russia, his other interests include music and politics.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 7th – 12th grade and community college. The concepts presented are accessible for younger students, though chronologically the information will be unfamiliar.

Preparation: Students would benefit from background knowledge of the Russian Revolution.

Courses: Art History, Film History, Film/Video  Production, 20th Century US History, World History


Wutong Art Village in Shenzhen, China

Speaker: Annie Malcolm

China has changed significantly in the last three decades, undergoing urbanization and industrialization on a scale never seen before. How do social scientists make sense of such radical changes? This talk explores creativity, art and urbanization in China through the lens of ethnography. Spaces like Wutong Art Village, on the edge of the huge city of Shenzhen, are portholes into understanding how artists work around changing conditions of life. This presentation uses examples of Chinese contemporary art, photos, prose, and accounts of interviews to show how a handful of Art Villages can be interpreted to better understand contemporary China. Students will develop a more nuanced and interesting understanding of modern China while learning how ethnographic research is conducted.

The presentation can work as a stand-alone experience, or as the introduction to an assignment in which students use what they learn to conduct an ethnographic research project within their own communities.

About the Speaker

Annie Malcolm has been learning Chinese since middle school. Having the opportunity to engage such a different language and culture from a young age formed her interest in anthropology, which she studied at Barnard College and continues to pursue as a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley. She has been to China eight times  - most recently for 18 months - and finds that, as a writer and researcher, Chinese art worlds and their relationships to Chinese cities are the most valuable muse with which to wrestle. Her ethnographic research incorporates photography, video, and interviews (which she translates from Chinese into English).

Suggested Audiences

Age: 7th – 12th grade and community college. Some of the more abstract ideas may be difficult for 7th graders, but the imagery and exploratory nature of the presentation would be interesting for engaged younger students.

Preparation: An introduction to Daoism and Buddhism in China would deepen student understanding of parts of the presentation, but is not necessary. Teachers should discuss with the speaker whether or not they plan to follow this talk with an ethnographic research project.

Courses: World History, Visual Arts or Art History, Mandarin, Geography, Anthropology 

Note: This talk is suitable for a Mandarin classroom and can be presented in Mandarin or a mix of Mandarin and English (depending on the proficiency of the class).


Tibet, China, and the United States: An LGBTIQ lens

Speaker: Tenzin Paldron

In 2011, LGBT experiences were spotlighted on the highest global stage, in remarks delivered from the United States to the UN on World Human Rights Day. Movements for equity around sexual orientation and gender expression have been in sharp focus ever since. This talk invites consideration of how growth takes place in different communities through three sets of stories. Audiences may learn of particular skills, obstacles, and conditions that shape the people in these stories, and how even simple choices of interpretation and language can reshape broader forces.

About the Speaker

Born to Tibetan parents in New Delhi, India, Tenzin immigrated to the United States and attended public schools in Colorado and Washington State. His higher ed studies began in community college, and he is currently a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley's Rhetoric Department. He writes on the limits of ethics and understanding and questions of speech, silence, and social change, with regional emphasis on the United States, China, and Tibet.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 7th-12th grade and community college. Concepts are accessible for younger students, with increasing complexity provided to older students.

Preparation: No background knowledge necessary, though teacher is welcome to confer with speaker ahead of time about topics.

Courses: US History, Ethnic Studies, World History, Sociology, Psychology, Media Studies


Race in Brazil: A Brief History

Speaker: Maria Reis

Brazil was the site of the largest slave-based economy in the Americas and the last country in the hemisphere to abolish the institution, in 1889. Today, some describe Brazil as a “racial democracy” – a place where clear racial categories and race-based discrimination do not exist. This presentation explores how and why ideas about race developed differently in Brazil than in the United states and ultimately challenges the idea that Brazil is a racial democracy. Through historical comparison, students will come to a deeper understanding of how ideas of race are constructed in different societies and they will consider the varied ways racial (in)equality can be described.

About the Speaker

Maria Reis is a graduate student in Berkeley’s Department of History, focusing on late colonial Latin American history. She was born in Brazil but moved to the Washington DC at the age of 11, so her personal background has played a large role in shaping her historical interest in comparing military conflicts and the institution of slavery in Brazil and the US. She received her undergraduate degree at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where she focused on modern Spanish and Portuguese history. In her spare time, she loves listening to Brazilian music, practicing yoga, and cooking for others.


Suggested Audiences

Age: 8th – 12th grade and community college.

Preparation: This talk would be most beneficial to students who have already studied the American Civil War and Reconstruction periods.

World History, US History, Sociology, Government


Studying Primates and their World

Speaker: Gustav Steinhardt

When people think about primate societies, they often imagine a small group organized around a dominant Alpha Male and his many females. But in some species, the central figure is a dominant female with many males.

How did that system evolve, and what can it tell us about social behavior in other primates, including humans? This talk explores the differences in primate societies, with a special focus on the scientific process - how we frame questions, the differences between lab work and field work, and how researchers draw on different domains of science in their work.

About the Speaker

At age 7, Gustav Steinhardt had a close encounter with a tamarin monkey at the National Zoo. He never recovered; now, as a fourth-year PhD student in Biological Anthropology, his interests lie at the intersection of behavior, neuroscience, and ecology. Before coming to Berkeley, he earned a BA from the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands, then an MA in interdisciplinary humanities from the University of Chicago. After finishing the MA, he switched into STEM and now works on the behavior and ecology of tamarins. His 20-year-old self would be surprised by his current career; his 7-year-old self would not.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 6th – 12th grade and community college, though more accessible to students in high school and above. Middle school students will need preparation in terms of vocabulary.

Preparation: Students would benefit from prior learning about evolution and natural selection. The teacher may want to request a vocabulary list to help prepare students ahead of time.

Courses: Biology or AP Biology, Environmental Science, Psychology, Sociology


What is Nature?

Speaker: Joel Thielen

On March 11, 2011, a grove of 70,000 pine trees in a coastal Japanese city was swept away by a massive tsunami—except for one single eighty-eight-foot-tall pine tree. However, eighteen months later, salt in the soil killed this "Miracle Pine", prompting the city government go to extraordinary lengths to preserve the tree. While the Miracle Pine is understood as a symbol of hope and resilience, the response of the local government to eternalize the tree raises questions about the intersection between technology and ecology. This seemingly simple story about a tree, and the forest it was once a part of, raises an interesting question about our rapidly changing world: Are landscapes built by human activity "natural"?

This talk uses historical images of pine trees in Japanese art to show how what we think of as "nature" is often constructed by human activity.

About the Speaker

Joel was born near Denver, Colorado and studied biology in college before becoming interested in Japanese art. He moved to Japan in 2012 and stayed for three years teaching English in public elementary and junior high schools while learning the Japanese language. It was during his time living in Japan that Joel became fascinated with depictions of nature in Japanese art. Now, he is working toward a PhD in the History of Art Department at UC Berkeley where he uses both ecology and art history to examine how landscape paintings and memorials produced in Japan help us to understand human-altered landscapes as "natural."

Suggested Audiences

Age: 9th – 12th grade and community college

Preparation: No preparation is necessary for this talk.

Courses: World History, Visual Arts or Art History, Geography, Ecology or Environmental Science


Fungi: Food, Medicine, Technology

Speaker: Sonia Travaglini

Fungi have been part of our lives for thousands of years; from being used as a food, to being used to create high-tech materials, mushrooms continue to be a cornerstone of our ecological, medicinal, and nutritional needs within diverse cultures. This talk explores the many uses of fungi, by relating to everyday knowledge such as edible mushrooms, and exploring how fungi are now being developed into a high-tech bio-industry to produce novel materials.

This talk outlines the process scientists and engineers use to research a subject; gathering information, and using scientific tools for analysis and drawing conclusions. On a deeper level, it explores the connection between how our ideas about fungi can limit or expand our uses of them. The presentation uses images of fungi and images of artwork from East Asia and around the world to describe a visual story of our long, changing relationship with fungi. Last, the talk also features interactive worksheets to engage the audience, including two short 1-page activities for individuals or groups, to explore and identify types of fungi, and identify depictions of fungi in ancient art.

About the Speaker

Originally from England, Sonia Travaglini researches the past, present and future of fungi-based technologies, and is a currently a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering. Following her BSc in Product Design & MSc in Advanced Manufacturing, Sonia became passionate about developing sustainable technologies, which led to her latest research in novel natural materials. Sonia is also an enthusiastic supporter of diversity in STEM, and volunteers with the Institution of Engineering & Technology for outreach in engineering.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 3rd grade -12th grade. The talk is ideal for students in 3rd to 8th grades, but increasing complexity can be provided to older students - the talk can be tailored to fit the academic level of the class.

Preparation: No background knowledge necessary, though the teacher is welcome to confer with speaker ahead of time about topics & academic level.

Courses: Engineering, Biology, Environmental Science, Ecology, Ethnic Studies, World History, and any course relating to scientific discovery.


"Made in China"

Speaker: Patricia Yu

How do objects tell their stories? This talk uses objects of the early China trade (17th to 19th centuries) to demonstrate how movement across boundaries and between cultures can produce creative transformations—in objects and in people. "Made in China" may be seen as a mark of cheap, low-quality, mass-produced goods today, but in previous centuries, objects "made in China" were highly desired luxury goods, inspiring voyages around the world. One of the first goals of the new American nation was to send a ship to China and the relationships formed among the cosmopolitan group of merchants in the port city of Canton would shape not only the formation of the American nation, but also lay the foundation for our own global age.

About the Speaker

Patricia J. Yu was born in Los Angeles, California and studied history at Pomona College. As an undergrad she completed paid summer museum internships at the Chinese American Museum and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, eventually leading her to pursue a doctoral degree in the Department of the History of Art at UC Berkeley. Her research specializes in Chinese art history, cross-cultural translation and exchange, and cultural heritage. She has just completed a graduate curatorial fellowship at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where she participated in the exhibition planning for the museum's gallery of Asian export art.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 7th – 12th grade and community college. 

Preparation: There is no preparation required, but students will benefit most from this talk if they have some familiarity with interactions between China and European powers in the mid-19th century, including the Canton system and the Opium Wars.

Courses: World History, US History, Ethnic Studies, Art & Architecture History


'The Undiscovered Country': the 1923 Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey

Speaker: Christin Zurbach

In 1923, Greece and Turkey engaged in a population exchange. Orthodox Christians from the newly-founded Turkish Republic were forcibly deported to Greece and Muslims from Greece were likewise forced to emigrate to Turkey. This process, which effectively created 2 million refugees, was legally sanctioned by both states, written out in the Lausanne Treaty, and supervised by international law. This talk showcases the effects of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of nationalist thinking. Students will be invited to consider the impact of nationalism – usually a huge, impersonal concept - on individual people’s day-to-day lives. At the same time, the talk is an opportunity to explore the dynamics of refugee crises and draw parallels with the Syrian refugee crisis today.

About the Speaker

Christin is a second year graduate student in Berkeley's History Department in the field of Middle East history, in particular late Ottoman/Modern Greco-Turkish minority history and the press. She received her undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia in 2014 and then spent the following year in Ioannina, Greece, learning Modern Greek. She first became interested in this topic as a high school student, when she won a scholarship at 17 to study Turkish in Ankara for a summer. She grew up with Greek neighbors who had family from Turkey, and then stayed with a host mother in Turkey whose Muslim grandparents had been forcibly exchanged in 1923. She wanted to understand how the narratives from her neighbors in Philadelphia and her new friends in Turkey fit together. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on a newspaper written by Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians during the exchange and later presenting that at an academic conference in Cyprus - another space of Greco-Turkish encounter and conflict.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 9th – 12th grade and community college

Preparation: Students should have already studied, or be in the process of studying, World War I.

Courses: Ethnic Studies, Government, US History, World History



How are talks prepared?

Graduate student speakers underwent a multi-step process in designing their talks. The presentation topic was identified through discussion with ORIAS, to draw out the elements of their research that were most aligned with content standards, the new social studies framework, and Common Core skills.

Speakers presented draft talks to experienced teachers and made revisions based on teacher suggestions and questions. Teachers who engage speakers in their classrooms are asked to complete a short written follow-up review, as well, so that speakers are able to improve and adapt their talks.

How much does it cost to bring a speaker to class?

Presentations are currently free to schools, though speakers are paid for each engagement. The ORIAS Speakers Bureau is generously funded by area studies centers and institutes at UC Berkeley: 

Center for Latin American Studies

Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Institute of East Asian Studies

Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies

How do I request a speaker?

Each presentation description includes a "Book This Speaker" link. Your request will be sent to the speaker(s) you request via email and scheduling will be dependent upon speakers' personal availability and transportation. For best results, please try to schedule several weeks in advance. You must submit a separate request for each individual speaker.

What are the teacher's responsibilities?

ORIAS asks three things of teachers who engage speakers.

(1) Help the speaker work with your class.

Give the speaker a sense of class size, composition, and atmosphere. Let speakers know about presentation-related technology and be ready to copy paper materials ahead of time, if applicable to the presentation. If your class period is longer or shorter than 50 minutes, let speakers know so that they can adjust accordingly. Last, please work as partners with them, remaining in the room at all times and helping with classroom mamangement as appropriate.

(2) Prepare your class to engage with the speaker.

Some talks require a bit of pre-teaching of vocabulary or concepts, while others simply require guidance about behavioral expectations. All talks include some element of student engagement, so please let your class know that speakers will appreciate positive participation. If you feel a talk will be challenging for your students, please help set their expectations appropriately.

(3) Complete the short post-presentation review.

After a speaker comes to your classroom, you will be asked to complete a short review. This review will help individual speakers improve and will enable ORIAS to improve the Speakers Bureau as a whole. Your review is very important.