Student Branch Spotlight: Columbia University

Students’ hard work earns them recognition

20 July 2012

Another in a series of articles highlighting activities of IEEE student branches.

According to its president, the IEEE Student Branch at Columbia University has two main goals: to help get their members employed, and to remind them that engineering is fun. The group certainly fulfilled those goals during the past year, holding many events that offered a variety of social and outreach activities and technical presentations. The university took note of the students’ hard work and awarded the branch its 2012 Zvi Galil Award for Improvement in Engineering Student Life.

Established in 2008, the annual award “honors the engineering-focused student group that most improves engineering student life during the academic year through a commitment to engineering or through integration of engineering with other sectors of the university.” The student branch received US $1000, which it plans to use to fund events.

“I was stunned and immensely honored,” branch President Sean Zimmermann says. “Our chapter had never been nominated for the award.”

Zimmermann and his branch have come a long way. When he joined four years ago, the branch barely existed: It had only five board members. Thanks to the board’s hard work, that number has tripled. “Many of our new members stepped up and volunteered to run their own events this year,” he says. “It has been an amazing year for our branch.”

For any campus group, nothing is more challenging than marketing your event to students, according to Zimmermann. “Regardless of how good your program is, unless you have something that interests new students, you will never sell out an event,” he says. “And, without a solid student attendance, attracting speakers is nearly impossible. Thankfully, there is a solution: free food. In fact, it's an almost sure-fire way to attract students to an event that's merely a single flyer in a sea of other student posters.”

The most popular social event was a liquid-nitrogen ice cream mixer. Students from several different engineering departments gathered to enjoy free ice cream made by the student branch. “The event also served as an important bonding activity for the board,” Zimmermann says. “Picture seven or eight engineers, most with no cooking experience, crammed into a tiny dorm kitchen, trying to decipher a vague ice cream recipe. It was one of the most fun nights I have had working with IEEE.”

Another highly attended and popular event series was the branch's LAN parties, a joint project between the branch and the Association for Computing Machinery. “In addition to meeting students from related disciplines, these gatherings promised a fun-filled evening and escape from engineering work,” Zimmermann says.

Outreach beyond electrical engineering students has been important for the branch, he adds: “We used to focus primarily on electrical engineering students, but this year we reached out to students from different departments, such as computer science and computer engineering to join in our student-mentorship program.” The program, founded last year, includes “biweekly luncheons, during which upper classmen mentor lower classmen on topics such as class scheduling, grad school, and job hunting,” says Branch Treasurer and President-elect Michael Mournighan.

Members of the branch also volunteered with Scientists and Engineers for a Better Society to provide activities for BioBus. The bus features a lab with science-themed demos and hands-on engineering activities, designed to get young children interested in the sciences.

“Learning the basics of engineering and doing engineering homework can be difficult, but our branch believes that real-world engineering is amazing—and fun—and it’s our mission to communicate that message regularly,” Zimmermann says. During the year, the branch organized technical presentations featuring Microsoft, Boeing, IBM, and other companies that discussed their latest work and offered career advice.

By the numbers alone, Microsoft’s session was the biggest hit, drawing more than 230 students to hear company representatives highlight their latest research and raffle an Xbox 360.

Irving Kalet, an adjunct professor of electrical engineering, whom Zimmermann describes as an engaging lecturer and story-teller, gave a talk for the branch’s professor-lecture program. Kalet spoke about the history of communications, including a segment on Edwin H. Armstrong, the developer of FM radio and a former Columbia University student and professor. Kalet’s students regard him as an expert on Armstrong, according to Zimmermann, and his lecture blended the science of Armstrong's famous discoveries (including the ones that led him to receive the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1917) with stories from Armstrong's epic struggle with David Sarnoff and RCA.

The student branch is already planning for the next school year. “We’re proud that many of the employers that worked with us this year have expressed interest in returning soon,” Zimmermann says. “And, with the cash prize from the award, we hope to hold more exciting—potentially even larger—events next year.”

Has your student branch been especially active recently? Want to be featured in The Institute? E-mail the editors for consideration of inclusion in an upcoming Student Branch Spotlight.

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