The IEEE Jacksonville Section has been active in STEM initiatives for many years. We have supplied judges and special awards to the local and regional science fairs, and visiting mentors to high school classes. And IEEE always presents the largest trophies at the science fair. Even bigger than the ones kids get for doing well at football. Very little money is spent (less than $200 per year), but we get a big return in appreciation and excitement from the kids who work so hard on their studies and projects.
This year, the Jacksonville Section hosted a major IEEE technical conference, IEEE SoutheastCon 2013. For the first time at this conference, we organized a program for local high school kids with an interest in science, engineering and math, to be able to come to the conference and observe all of the proceedings on guided tours. We informed high school teachers and administrators that we would host four groups of up to 20 high school students each, on Friday and Saturday of the conference. We communicated this information through the regional science fair organization. Also, at the recent regional science and engineering fair, we awarded free registration to the conference to the top project in the senior division in an IEEE area of interest.
SoutheastCon is a unique conference in that it is, essentially, three conferences in one. First, it is a peer-reviewed technical conference. This year, conference participants presented more than 160 peer reviewed papers, with oral and poster presentations. SoutheastCon accepts papers on a very broad range of subjects, so there was always something of interest to most of the kids. Secondly, this conference is a major university student event. We had 50 of the top universities in the southeast United States and Jamaica attending and competing in our various student competitions. These competitions included the autonomous robotic competition, software competition, ethics competition, and much more. Finally, this conference is the annual meeting of the Region 3 Committee. Approximately 70 top IEEE professionals, who volunteer their time to advance the profession, comprise this particular annual meeting.
About 750 people attended the 2013 SoutheastCon. As such, we had a number of corporate and university sponsors and booth exhibitors. Some of these exhibits were for recruiting top talent for employment and university graduate programs, and some were about presenting new technologies for sale.
Jacksonville Section members took each tour through the entire conference range of activities. When the students visited the exhibit area, the exhibitors took a minute to explain their offerings to them, and the university booths gave the students promotional material. The students were very attentive and asked good questions. After the exhibit area, we took them to one of the paper sessions. The kids were sincerely interested in understanding the presenters’ work, and were very impressed to meet working engineers and scientists.
This tour was the first introduction for these high school students to the way technical advances are communicated in academia. Finally, each tour was taken to the robotic competition area where, we encouraged the students to mix in with the college students for about an hour. Here, they were able to explore firsthand the process of developing and debugging autonomous machines.
Our section has received many positive remarks from students and teachers for the value and success of this program. Several students commented about how much they learned in just a short while in this setting. One student emailed me afterward,
“Dear Mr. Shadwell:
I would like to thank you for the tour of the IEEE conference on April 6th. The experience was very eye opening, for I saw the opportunities that come with science. The robotics competition was also an enjoyable experience. One reason the competition was interesting was because I saw how all the college students enjoyed science and it was inspiring to see that, to see science in action. The conference as a whole was interesting, because the application of science was glorified, and application is very important to me. I appreciate that you gave your time to show myself and my group around, and that you explained everything with fluidity. Again, thank you”¦”
The Jacksonville Section members hope that this event can be a model for future IEEE conferences–to invite local school children to see how the professionals do it. In our experience, it took very little supervision on our part, only one tour guide per tour. These kids were so pleased to have this opportunity that they were always on their best behavior, and of course the teachers invited only the students that had the greatest interest and background in STEM. They comprehended the technology very well, and there is no doubt that the program was worthwhile. It took minimal effort on my part as the organizer and conference chair. I will definitely do it again when I host another conference.
Butch Shadwell has been an active IEEE member for more than 35 years, and has been mentoring high school kids in science and math nearly as long. He is currently the chair of the Jacksonville Section, and recently chaired IEEE SoutheastCon 2013 conference there. Like many volunteers, he also holds several other positions at the IEEE local, area, region and institute levels.