Student Branch Chairs Meet to Exchange Ideas

A group of student branches recently brainstormed ways to increase membership, discussed perceptions of engineers, and more

6 January 2011

The program that seeks to build closer relationships between IEEE and its student branches attracted representatives from 16 schools to its annual meeting in October, including for the first time schools outside the United States.

Branch chairs from Tsinghua and Peking universities, both in Beijing, and the Indian Institute of Technology, in Kharagpur, attended the Student Leaders Summit in Hoboken, N.J., sponsored by the IEEE University Partnership Program (UPP). The program had expanded earlier last year when it added student branches at those three schools, as well as at the Indian Institute of Science, in Bangalore, whose branch chair could not attend the meeting. All told, the program now involves student branches at 17 institutions.

The program aims to build closer relationships with the student branches, as well as with the librarians, at top engineering schools. The branch chairs came together to share their ideas for running thriving student branches and to learn about the benefits of IEEE membership.

At October’s three-day meeting, students brainstormed about ways to increase branch membership. They also discussed how negative perceptions of engineers seem to have declined, as well as reasons why there are few famous engineers.

The student branches held a variety of events last year, aided in part by UPP funds and advice from staff liaisons. For example, in October, Texas A&M University, in College Station, held its annual IEEE Local Area Network Party, which brings together dozens of students to compete in a video-game tournament. (The Institute wrote about the branch’s 2008 LAN party.)

The student branch at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, held a Student Professional Awareness Conference, also in October, that featured presentations about their robotics projects by professors from Drexel and the nearby University of Pennsylvania.

Peking University’s student branch is also focused on robotics but with a different twist. The students are working with IBM, Intel, and other companies to organize technical presentations this year, featuring demonstrations of their robots.

The student branch at Tsinghua University worked last year on improving the school’s library services. It helped organize an orientation for new students on how to use the library’s engineering resources, and it compiled a list of students’ most-wanted books to add to the library’s collection. The branch plans to hold a seminar soon to show students how to use the IEEE Xplore digital library.

The Indian Institute of Technology’s student branch, working with the IEEE Kharagpur Section, held its first TechSym, which featured technical workshops in such areas as human-computer interaction, health-care technology, and power management. The April symposium drew more than 150 engineering students and young engineers from around India. The branch plans to make TechSym an annual event and is encouraging other UPP student branches to hold similar conferences. The next one, taking place from 14 to 16 January at the school, is focusing on humanitarian technologies.

At the summit in Hoboken, students received helpful advice on how to run their branches and boost membership from UPP alumni and former branch chairs Josh Bartlett, from the University of Michigan; Briana Morey, Worcester Polytechnic Institute; and William Coulter, Cal Tech. The three, who each graduated within the last three years, shared their thoughts on the benefits of holding technical and social events.

“At my branch we held a lot of social events to first expand membership and increase our presence,” Bartlett said. “Once we became more established, we organized technical activities.

“I found that undergraduate students tend to be more interested in social events, because they don’t yet have the engineering background to understand the technology typically discussed at technical events,” he continued. “On the other hand, graduate students are more interested in tech talks. That’s why branch chairs have to understand their membership when deciding what kind of event will draw students.”

Morey suggested combining fun activities with technical challenges. For example, as chair of the WPI student branch, she organized the Fox Hunt, during which students competed to build a wireless receiver that could help them locate a transmitter hidden on campus. She also suggested a way to make speakers more interesting: Have them engage the audience by demonstrating their products or services.

The students explored how the perception of engineers is improving. Most students said that they felt engineers still don’t get the respect they deserve, but that things are getting better. Some added that the public’s perception of engineers depends on geography.

“I’m from Pakistan, where engineers are well respected,” said Saryah Azmat, cochair of the student branch at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H. “Although that’s not the case in the United States, I think it’s beginning to change. I’ve found that many companies are interested in me for non-engineering positions because they like the way engineers think. They realize we’re great at data analysis and that we have qualities applicable to a variety of fields.”

Morey agreed about the change in perception: “Every time I tell someone I’m an engineer, they say, ‘Whoa, that’s cool!’”

The students noted that even though engineers have invented many devices people use every day, no engineers have become household names.

“People don’t know the engineers behind these technologies, because engineering by its nature is not an individually focused field,” said Frank Nothaft, chair of the Stanford University student branch. “Engineers work on such large-scale, multidisciplinary projects that it’s almost impossible for one person to do all the work alone.”

Amir Golnabi, cochair of the Dartmouth College student branch, pointed out that, “credit for engineers’ work is often given to the business leaders at the companies who are the ones to become famous.”

The students agreed it’s their duty to change the way engineers are viewed. “People think we only talk technology, but it’s our responsibility to break down such stereotypes,” Azmat said. “We are working really hard to change the image of engineers, and we must keep trying.”

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