Disney Imagineers Help Revitalize Student Professional Awareness Activities

By Chris McManes

The Walt Disney Company is one of the world’s most iconic entertainment and media enterprises. Its five business segments � media networks, parks and resorts, studio entertainment, consumer products and interactive � bring fun and enjoyment to millions of people around the world.

Walt Disney Imagineering is the creative force behind Disney theme parks, retail outlets, resorts and cruise ships, among other things. The talented people who design and cultivate these attractions are known as Imagineers.

So when the IEEE-USA Student Professional Awareness Committee, meeting in Los Angeles last fall, decided it needed to do something to spice up its Student Professional Awareness Conferences and Ventures (S-PAC and S-PAVe), it turned to Walt Disney Imagineering.

The two Imagineers who came over to speak were IEEE members Leo Szeto and Jonathan Chew, both of whom had organized S-PACs when they were students at UCLA.

Szeto studied electrical engineering and computer science and graduated in 2012. He was president of the school’s IEEE student branch and works for Imagineering as a ride controls engineer. He’s now on assignment in China overseeing ride design at the Shanghai Disney Resort, which is scheduled to open the end of 2015.

Chew was president of the UCLA student branch in 2008-09 and graduated in 2010 with a BS in electrical engineering and biomedical sciences specialization. He is a project coordinator for the Shanghai Disney Resort.


The first thing Szeto and Chew did was to compare S-PACs with two home-movie distribution companies, Blockbuster and Netflix. Blockbuster dominated the retail rental movie market but failed to adapt quickly enough to Netflix’ DVD-by-mail service, which has since largely been replaced by streaming. The company was sold and eventually closed all its stores.

“Blockbuster was amazing back in its day,” Szeto said. What killed it was not the content they delivered the same content what killed Blockbuster was its method of delivery. Like Blockbuster, [S-PAC] had to change its method of delivery.

Guru Madhavan, chair of the IEEE-USA Student Professional Awareness Committee, said the example resonated.

“Do we want to be Blockbuster or Netflix?,” Madhavan said. “What Leo and Jonathan very delicately suggested is that we were still in the Blockbuster mode.”

Chew and Szeto also shared three traits they think characterize IEEE students and young professionals highly mobile, highly stimulated and highly connected.

“When S-PAC started [in 1979], we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook or any of the social media technologies that we now take for granted,” Madhavan said. “It made [the committee] reflect if we were still up to date. In that regard, it was pretty clear that S-PACs were still in the Blockbuster mode, whereas the students were interested in the Netflix mode.”


Enter SPAx

Madhavan and his fellow committee members took the advice and insight and decided to transform S-PAC and S-PAVe into the Student Professional Awareness experience (SPAx). The is the variable that the students decide how to present.

A SPAx (pronounced spa ex) event can still be a traditional conference or venture, or it can be, for example, a design contest, industry visit, humanitarian field project or informal social activity focused on professional skills development.

Students can customize their events to meet their professional needs, expectations and interests, Madhavan said. You can learn a lot about professional career areas outside of a conference room. Our hope is that students will design and organize a lot more creative activities.

SPAx will continue to emphasize the non-technical skills an engineer needs to succeed. These include, among others, effective communication, leadership and career-development skills. The SPAx tagline is: =Explore. Engage. Experience.

“We’ve designed SPAx to support students in exploring for themselves what it’s like to be in the profession,” said Ed Perkins, IEEE-USA vice president of professional activities.

Enhanced student engagement follows another Walt Disney Imagineering principle.

“We design immersive experiences, something that immerses you into the world in which the story is being told,”; Chew said. “When Walt Disney started this [company], it was basically translating what was in his movies into a physical environment. That’s the trick.”

Students can choose whatever type of event they want to stage as long as it relates to at least one of the eight S-PAC core areas: career development, professional integrity, personal skills, engineers and public policy, leadership in professional organizations, the practice of innovation, the art of communication and humanitarian grand challenges.

“It’s really all about motivation,” Chew said. “If you kind of spin it that you will actually have fun while learning, that is much better than, go and learn and you might have fun.’ So it’s kind of putting the let’s enjoy and be inspired as engineers,’ rather than you’re going to learn and be taught something.'”

“We go to school and are taught all day, so why would I want to go to another thing in my spare time that is going to be more of the same thing?”

Students at UCLA took a trip to SpaceX in January. Founded by Elon Musk in 2002, the company designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. It served as a SPAx pilot event and was promoted as a “road trip to a dream job.” While there, SpaceX engineers spoke to the students.

“In the traditional model, [student organizers] wouldn’t have gotten credit for it,” Szeto said. “We hope that with the SPAx model we can really give the students credit where it’s due when they actually do one of these events.”

Chew and Szeto continue to advise IEEE-USA volunteers and have offered advice on the design of the new SPAx Website, including making it compatible with smartphones and tablets.

You can find out more about SPAx through this video.

A Modern Approach

The IEEE-USA Student Professional Awareness Committee will celebrate its 35th anniversary in Seattle in October. It has sponsored more than 1,200 activities, reaching over 100,000 students on more than 200 college campuses. The S-PAC model has served IEEE student members well, but a new approach to meet today’s students was needed.

“The core current here is that of a cultural shift, possibly even a generational shift among engineering students,” Madhavan said.

In addition to Szeto and Chew, Madhavan credits Jim Watson for breathing new life into student professional activities. Watson has been making career-development presentations to IEEE student members since 1975 and helped create the S-PAC program. He has spoken at more than 1,200 student events.

“Jim Watson also inspired us to think about something different,” Madhavan said. “The work he’s done with students over the past 35 years is amazing.”

Madhavan, a senior program officer at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., said his IEEE-USA student-focused committee honed in on the Disney concept of mental real estate.

“Disney takes that concept very seriously in its creative process,” he said. “You have information coming from all different directions, and Disney looks at it from the angle of making people happy because that’s the business they’re in. If you go to one of their theme parks or movies, you walk out happy.

“People have lots of sources to gain happiness from, but Disney has a niche, a unique contribution, and in that regard we had an exact parallel. How were we going to capture the mental real estate of our students?”

Chew said the idea of a conference doesn’t resonate well with college students.

“Conferences have a bad mental real estate,” he said. “You want to kind of brand it a little differently, so that it’s like, “OK, today guys we’re going on an adventure.’ That inspires exhilaration, excitement and hope for something that is to come rather than a conference, where you’re not necessarily inspired to go to, even though cool things can happen there.”

How You Can Participate

SPAx will be fully deployed in January. Students interested in organizing a SPAx event should contact their S-PAC regional coordinator.

If you’re interested in being a speaker or would like more information, contact Scott Grayson at

Madhavan credits Chew and Szeto for making “us think about what we should do next,” he said. “So I think they fueled our action plan. This completely inspired us to refocus our strategy.”

The Walt Disney Imagineers are happy to contribute to SPAx.

“I’m really excited for the new SPAx program because it has so much potential,” Chew said. “It’s opening up the students’ creativity.”

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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