2008 Eta Kappa Nu National Leadership Conference


January 23, 2009

On November 8th, 150 ECE honor society students from 27 U.S. universities arrived at Carnegie Mellon to attend the 2008 Eta Kappa Nu National Leadership Conference. This year the conference was hosted by Carnegie Mellon's Sigma Chapter, a student organization in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

A year earlier, ECE student and Sigma Chapter Treasurer, Sidharth Singh, had the idea to increase the Chapter's involvement in leadership activities. Working with the organization's professional advisor, Susan Farrington, and faculty advisor, Professor David Casasent, Sidharth wrote the winning proposal that allowed Sigma Chapter to host a conference it named "In Pursuit of Excellence: Achieving Results Through Leadership and Innovation.

Ironically, Sidharth, a senior, graduated in May 2008 and had to leave the remainder of the conference planning and its full implementation to the next set of student officers. Fortunately, Sigma Chapter's 2008-2009 student executive team, including Brad Miller, President, Christina Johns, Vice President, and Sarah Hsieh, Treasurer, fully embraced this "assignment" and quickly formed a team of Eta Kappa Nu volunteers to make the conference happen.

Over many months, the team created a day-long conference agenda, invited top-notch speakers from academe and industry and secured funding from seven industry sponsors. "The journey was as interesting and rewarding as the destination," says Susan Farrington, ECE Director of Alumni & Student Relations. "Everyone worked hard, had some fun and learned a lot."

This sentiment is echoed by the student officers, as well. Brad Miller commented, "It was an awesome professional development opportunity and a chance to make the ECE honor society shine." ECE IMB student and Conference Chair, Christina Johns, said she appreciated the chance to acquire more speaking and presentation skills and learn what is involved in delivering a large educational event. "At the end we were all tired, but very happy and extremely proud of what had been accomplished," she said.

On November 8, the conference unfolded as the student officers planned but came to life in ways they could not have anticipated. The 150 student attendees arrived with high expectations and high energy. They actively listened to and questioned the speakers and panelists, participated in challenging case study competitions, interacted with one another and enjoyed "spending time" with Boss, Carnegie Mellon's autonomous driving vehicle that was brought to campus for the conference.

The conference team had a chance to meet and interact with many of the participants. "You have a beautiful campus," commented a student from Cornell University. "There is amazing research here," added a well-dressed and well-spoken senior from Southern University. Accolades aside, the hosts agreed it was great to see some of ECE's best and brightest learning from the speakers and from each other.

Glen Meakem, Managing Director of Meakem Becker Venture Capital and a Carnegie Mellon University Board of Trustee's member, kicked off the conference with advice for budding entrepreneurs. Next, ECE Professor Raj Rajkumar, helped the students prepare to win a mock DARPA challenge. For the rest of the morning, students attended breakout sessions where they met in groups to solve problem sets and get ready to present their results to the entire conference. Student presentations were a highlight of the conference, allowing the participants to compete, support and better know one another.

The students were particularly inspired by the lunch and evening keynote addresses given by CS and Robotics Professor Red Whittaker and ECE Professor and retired Seagate executive, Mark Kryder, respectively. Professor Whittaker allowed "home movies" of robotic vehicles, from past to present, to run in the background while he talked to students about preparation, passion, risk taking and contributing at a high level while living a life you love. In the evening at Phipps Conservatory, Professor Kryder, gave a personal and insightful account of his experiences as a leader and innovator in both academe and industry, helping the students to extrapolate and apply the lessons learned to their own lives and careers.

Numerous corporations and corporate executives contributed to the learning environment that day. Conference sponsors included: Lockheed Martin, Bloomberg, Booz Allen Hamilton, Bose, Dynetics, Intel, NVIDIA and Synopsys. A distinguished industry panel, moderated by ECE Professor David Ricketts, delved into the cultures and methods of innovation that allow companies to become market leaders. The panel was made up of ECE alumnus Jane Rudolph, who is a Senior Vice President at Lockheed Martin, and ECE alumnus, Joseph Havrilla, who is a Senior Vice President and CTO at MEDRAD. Other panelists included Ron Hodge, Partner and Officer of Global Information Technology at Booz Allen Hamilton and Greg Lester, Vice President of Air and Missile Defense at Dynetics.

Following the lively Q&A of the panel, the student participants shifted gears and had fun playing rounds of ECE Jeopardy, prepared for them by ECE graduate student, Andres Gonzalez. Sigma Chapter has a special history with Jeopardy since ECE alum and former Sigma Chapter Treasurer, Kermin Fleming, won the Jeopardy College Bowl on national TV in 2005. Since that time, Sigma Chapter, using the official software and buzzer system, has provided creative ECE Jeopardy rounds at each annual ECE Day.

Before the conference came to a close, Sigma Chapter honored Professor David Casasent, with an award for 25+ years of service as their faculty advisor. Professor Casasent was an officer in Eta Kappa Nu as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois -- Urbana Champagne. He is a Life Member and Senior Fellow of IEEE.

Sigma Officer and Speaker Chair, Sarah Hsieh, concluded, "We have a lot of people to thank for the quality of the event. The speakers and panelists gave us excellent personal and professional insights and useful career advice. Other faculty members brought depth to the case study and panel exploration. Our advisors stood by us every step of the way and Eta Kappa Nu national was quite helpful. We showed that we have quite a community and many valuable resources to draw on."