1000 Conferences and Counting

Student Professional Awareness Conference the first to be jointly organized

19 October 2012
Photo: John Paserba

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The IEEE-USA Student Professional Activities Committee (SPAC) recently reached a milestone in its 32-year history: It held its 1000th Student Professional Awareness Conference (S-PAC). Professional engineers played key roles, offering career advice, discussing the soft skills so necessary on the job, and offering career advice during the 11 April event, held at Cleveland State University. The conference was the first to be jointly organized—by the IEEE student branch at CSU and the university’s chapter of the honor society IEEE–Eta Kappa Nu (HKN).

The enjoyable, informative conference catered to the technical and professional development needs of the groups’ members. Its success showed that organizations such as IEEE and IEEE-HKN can collaborate effectively to accomplish the common goal of educating students. We hope to collaborate with IEEE Women in Engineering in the future.

FIRST PARTNERSHIP S-PAC
Berney Montavon, president of Cleveland State’s IEEE student branch, kicked off the conference with a brief overview of the program to an audience of more than 150 students. Among those on hand were Jim Look, IEEE-USA vice president of Professional Activities; John Paserba, chair of the IEEE Member and Geographic Activities Student Activities Committee’s Student Professional Awareness Activities subcommittee; Ralph Ford, IEEE Region 2 director; and Jim Watson, historian of the IEEE-USA SPAC national committee.

Charles Alexander, 1997 IEEE president and professor of electrical engineering at CSU, added a technical touch with an overview of liquid fluoride thorium reactors and the role they might play in meeting the world’s energy needs.

My presentation, “2012: The Engineer Odyssey. Things I Wish I Knew After College,” focused on such topics as job hunting, negotiating a salary, and climbing the corporate ladder.

Next up was a panel of speakers who now took questions from the audience. Students asked about the value of gaining advanced degrees, as well as what to expect when working in industry. Adding some fun to the night was a lively discussion led by Look regarding when an MBA is useful in an engineering career.

The conference ended with a presentation of certificates to the students involved in its planning, plus a set of Partnership Plaques to Montavon and Dan Frowerk, president of the IEEE-HKN chapter for their joint venture. The two student leaders were commended for their role in making the conference a success.


SPAC HISTORY
It was fitting that Alexander and Watson were part of the event because both were instrumental in the formation of IEEE-USA SPAC. They served on the original subcommittee, headed by Larry Dwon, that generated the basis of the SPAC. The first S-PAC event was held in 1979. Watson at the April conference discussed the value behind the partnership and gave an emotional talk about Dwon, his friend and mentor, who died in 2009.

Born Vladimir Dzwonczyk, Dwon spent seven decades volunteering for both HKN and IEEE. He was a power engineer during that time who tried to foster a better relationship between engineers in the power industry and academia. In 1976 he was serving as the industrial representative to the IEEE Student Activities Committee when a member asked whether IEEE had plans for students in its Professional Activities Program, which sought to enhance the soft skills of professional engineers. Learning the program had no plans for students, Dwon proposed the creation of a subcommittee to focus on student activities; he was appointed to chair the subcommittee the next year.

Alexander took the chair at the end of Dwon’s term and ensured that the new subcommittee did not stray from its original mission: to provide professional growth for students. In 1979 he assisted in organizing the first two student conferences, at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and Youngstown State University, in Ohio. Those became the models for today’s S-PACs. It wasn’t until the formation of a working group in 1984, with Dwon as chair and Watson as a member, that a formal proposal was put forth to create a funded IEEE entity dedicated to promoting student professional activities. That entity eventually became the SPAC as we know it today.

Since its formation, the SPAC has worked with student branches in IEEE Regions 1 through 6 to organize conferences and events to target students’ soft skills, which typically are neglected in the classroom. Within a few years, the S-PAC program was extended to Regions 7 through 10.

Sadly, Dwon died in 2009 at age 95 before seeing his creation achieve its 1000th-meeting milestone. His legacy burns stronger than ever, however, thanks to the support of IEEE leaders and the staff and volunteers who continue to serve on the committee. In his memory, committee members created the Larry Dwon Hall of Fame, which highlights student branches that have held outstanding S-PACs. Branches wishing to be considered for the recognition should visit the Hall of Fame website to find out more and then contact their regional coordinator.

OPTIONS
S-PACs can take on various forms, but typically consist of a daylong program with three or four speakers and a panel session to address questions from the audience. In the United States, IEEE-USA provides a keynote speaker, but students are required to line up the other speakers.

In addition to the conferences, the SPAC helps organize Student Professional Awareness Ventures, which feature hands-on projects and activities. Past S-PAVs have included networking workshops, resume-writing seminars, and a workshop dedicated to designing educational applications for iPods.

Although there is no hard and fast criterion for deciding to hold an S-PAC or an S-PAV, the needs of the particular student branch should be factored into the decision. A conference format might be more suitable for larger student branches, while an awareness venture can be more valuable for branches seeking to attract more members.

Student can learn more about the S-PACs by visiting the Student Career Development Activities website.

(A special thanks to Jim Watson and John Paserba for contributing to this article.)

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