ASU students plan IISE regional conference in a virtual setting
Above: Participants from 14 schools across five states and two countries attended the virtual 2021 U.S. Western Regional conference of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers, hosted by Arizona State University and organized by two industrial engineering graduate students, Nathan Chmelnik and Katelyn Johnson.
ASU industrial engineering students Nathan Chmelnik and Katelyn Johnson organized the virtual 2021 conference of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers for the U.S. Western Region, which was held in February 2021.
“We got to do a lot of trailblazing in terms of organizing the online conference space, especially for IISE, which was very new to this kind of virtual setting,” says Johnson, who is the vice president of conference operations for the ASU chapter of IISE. “Luckily, we got to attend Purdue’s conference for the midwestern states and we had the opportunity to engage with them and learn from them, which was a really cool experience.”
The objectives of the conference were to provide a forum for students to present papers reflecting industry-based projects and undergraduate research, encourage creative thinking through team competitions, promote leadership and communication, provide an opportunity to network, and strengthen communications between IISE chapters in the region.
The two-day virtual conference was held completely via Zoom on Saturday, February 27, and Sunday, February 28 this year, during which attendees had the opportunity to partake in a wide variety of activities from a technical paper competition to trivia.
“I feel that I grew a lot just in terms of my communication and organizational skills through planning this conference,” says Chmelnik, the conference director for the ASU chapter of IISE.
A total of 14 schools across five states and two countries were represented at the conference, including ASU, the University of Arizona, California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California State University East Bay, San Jose State University, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvey Mudd College, the University of Southern California, California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Scripps College, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, Montana State University and the IISE Espol chapter from Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Additionally, many faculty members from these schools and industry professionals were present at the conference.
“The conference was a team effort, and I’m glad that Nathan and Katelyn were leading through so much uncertainty,” says Lorenzo de Guzman, the ASU IISE chapter president. “They planned more than 12 events over two days and brought more than 80 attendees and more than 15 faculty and professionals to share their time and experience. Nathan and Katelyn brought a high level of preparation and attention to detail to each event.”
Anticipating the future in uncertain times
The ASU chapter of IISE knew a year beforehand that they wanted to host the 2021 conference.
“During February 2020, we attended the IISE Western Region Conference at USC,” de Guzman says. “We were inspired by the whole experience and walked away wanting to host the conference in 2021. We didn’t expect a virtual conference.”
Faced with an unprecedented situation, Chmelnik and Johnson began planning the conference in October 2020.
“We had to think about whether the conference would be virtual or not,” Chmelnik says. “That was a hard decision because we were planning the conference in October and November having no idea what the situation was going to be in February.”
To play it safe, Chmelnik and Johnson decided the conference should be held entirely virtually, which took them into uncharted territory as virtual conferences were new to IISE.
“One of the biggest challenges was trying to figure out the best platform to use and what kinds of resources we should use for communication,” Johnson says. “The virtual space is so new that there are a lot more difficulties in terms of communicating with other chapters. But it was much easier in the sense that with traditional conferences, you have to coordinate food and lodging for attendees, and that wasn’t a concern in the online setting.”
Chmelnik and Johnson said taking the initiative to reach out and learn from other IISE chapters and organizations was a key component in their success with planning.
“If we knew someone that we thought could provide a perspective about how to plan the event, we reached out,” Johnson says. “This included other IISE chapters we talked to, some professionals from the IISE professional chapter and personal clubs.”
A weekend of engaging activities
Part of the preparation involved Chmelnik and Johnson developing a budget and a timeline for planning as well as designing the conference program, which involved organizing speakers, activities and student competitions.
“We wanted to do something exciting with the conference,” Chmelnik says. “It was from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, so it’s definitely a time commitment for everyone who attended.”
The conference kicked off with introductions and workshops on Microsoft Excel, networking on LinkedIn, and learning Python, which fostered technical and professional development for the student attendees. Additionally, ASU Associate Professor Esma Gel and Assistant Professor Giulia Pedrielli gave research presentations.
“We sent out surveys to a lot of people who are attending and asked what events they wanted to see and what they wanted to prioritize,” Chmelnik says. “We wanted to get an idea of what events people wanted so they would want to spend the whole weekend with us.”
A technical paper competition allowed students to present their research papers. The four papers this year were presented by students from the University of California, Berkeley, California State University, East Bay, California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and Harvey Mudd College.
The competition was judged by industry professionals Sean Genovese, Richard Cross, and Kazuo Takeda, and the top three papers were announced at the closing meeting. The first-place team won $500, the second-place team won $300, and the third-place team won $200.
Following the technical paper competition, students had the opportunity to engage with an industry panel and a company networking mixer.
The conference wrapped up with a social trivia event and some closing remarks.
Lessons from the virtual conference
With a high number of attendees and a full two days of engaging activities, the conference was a resounding success.
“This was definitely a team effort,” Chmelnik says. “Jack Marks, Jake Simon, Jaden Heidbreder, Chi Nguyen, and Emma Martz on our executive team were all extremely helpful, as well as our president Lorenzo de Guzman. Without him and the rest of the team, the conference wouldn’t have been as successful.”
Additionally, the chapter’s faculty advisor, Assistant Professor Feng Ju, helped the team with advertising the conference and coordinating with other chapters.
“We had some good feedback at the end and it seemed like a lot of people really enjoyed the conference,” Johnson says. “It was a great experience to learn about virtual events and how to make them engaging and entertaining.”