Student club stays connected with online events

Some of the challenges our students face during lockdown include the shutdown of campus and thus, some of the social activities vital to enjoying student life. We caught up with Sarah Francis, the President of IEEE’s Student Branch to see how their club is tackling this.

The IEEESB committee getting together on Zoom.

Was there a particular hunger for student-run events in lockdown?

Personally, I think we needed them because we were one of the less active clubs in the past. The kind of response we’d get when IEEE is mentioned is that not many students know what it’s about and it’s partially because we’re not one of the larger, more established clubs.

At the start of the year, because of this background, we tried our best to have more events to reach out to more students. We were going to go to more club expos to tell first and second-year students – especially if they’re coming in fresh into a specialisation. As a club, we want to really put effort into filling the gaps because the Electrical and Computer Systems specialisations don’t already have their individual clubs like others do.

Was it difficult to get motivated under lockdown to do something about this?

I think that's one thing we had to reconsider as soon as lockdown started, because a lot of the other engineering clubs were going through similar things. There was supposed to be a joint event that was eventually canceled and a lot of clubs were like, “oh maybe we'll just hold off from doing events”.

For me, it was a little personal because this is my first time being heavily involved with the club so I felt like you know, it was meant to be a great year for the club! With everything being closed I thought we should at least try to make sure we had something going even if we’re just at home, and everyone really did contribute, and we managed to run almost five events during lockdown!

Has your approach to events fundamentally changed with them being online?

I think the number of events that we're able to pull off in such a short period of time have become easier, although not having catering on offer was quite stressful at the beginning so now we will always think, “would we go to this event?” which is especially true for social events, like movie nights. It’s so much easier to just watch Netflix alone instead of joining a bunch of people you’re not actually going to talk to while you watch a movie!

So it’s not just about making sure people will be interested and benefit from an event. We’ve also started providing prizes, though there were some challenges there with places not being open especially during Levels 3 and 4 of lockdown. It’s also a matter of knowing what prizes to hand out. Something like the Steam vouchers we had on offer worked well with getting a good attendance on the quiz night, which is great but we’re aware that it really caters to a very specific group of people.

Was that your first quiz night as a club, and how did you tackle the logistics for that?

It was! We did want to hold one physically with staff and students, so maybe we’ll bring that back. We weren’t quite sure how to do it online but then remembered we used Kahoot in class so it should work there. We did get complaints like, “these questions are rigged!” but that happens at every quiz night!

How did the other events on your regular roster go?

We recently had our internship panel over Zoom, which is a way for third and fourth year students to talk about their experiences and to help along first and second years who haven’t had much experience in the field or don’t know where to begin when it comes to these things. About 45 people in total turned up so that was pretty good

Raving Academics – an evening featuring short talks from a few lecturers – translated well online, I think. It’s been quite popular in the past and is one of the events IEEE seems to be known for, so when we weren’t 100 percent sure of it, everyone kind of pushed to ensure that it did happen. I think part of the success was getting awesome speakers, and it wasn’t too much of a transition to participate online. I mean, lectures are online and lecture recordings have always been there so it was a very similar thing to do.

You’ve also started a podcast.

Yeah! When we were going into lockdown there was a huge gap in what we could really produce. Our intention for the year was to bring people closer together, so we thought about variety. We were thinking of just getting a variety of things together that people would want to spend time participating in.

We’ve recently had our first meeting with Dr Danielle Lottridge and it was the first time we’ve done anything like this so it’s super new to all of us! We were concerned not just about microphones and the quality over Zoom, but also it’s quite nerve-racking because she’s the first person we interviewed, so we were worried that she won’t like our jokes or it’ll be really awkward! But she was really nice.

A couple of other lecturers have already said they’re interested in being on it, so we’ll see how the first one pans out but I think we did pretty well!

How did the idea for a podcast come up?

Someone in the club thought a comedy night could be fun – we were going to get lecturers and kind of bond them together and we would do something around that... and we hoped to have that event in person. Because we couldn't do that we ended up considering a podcast instead, which was supposed to be funny but since we're also an academic club we didn't want to just invite a lecturer around and not have a conversation with someone who would love to talk about stuff they’ve worked on!

A podcast also has a much broader reach as opposed to just playing with inside jokes that may come up in the comedy show. Was this a consideration in the content?

I think so! When we planned the script, I personally didn’t think I would listen to a podcast if it was genuinely all academia. So when we wrote it I wanted to ask random questions, like what their favourite colour was or what they thought of students who come into lectures late a lot. We tried to incorporate general questions to make it more interesting so it’s not too academic-based.

I think it’s such a good opportunity for us to get to know our lecturers outside of uni instead of just asking them questions about class. It’s always inspiring to be able to hear about what they went through when they were studying and just get to know them as people.

What was the most valuable lesson you’ve learned through this experience?

We’ve realised that with staying at home during lockdown – since we can’t really tell people about what’s going on in person, or put up posters, or lecture bash, social media has become a huge part of how we get the word out and spread things.

Marketing took some learning: we realised that a strong social media presence is necessary even if it’s just to get our name out there. Then it’s about the frequency and quality of posts… and being able to spread our reach and get help from faculty.

We’re finally using the Instagram account we signed up for last year more regularly now, and are learning that we need to constantly work pretty hard to get people’s attention. We’ve also started planning better so events are promoted well in advance on social media. This worked out well with Raving Academics for example. Around 50 people turned up and I think most of it had to do with us marketing it a bit better.

Do you think you’ll continue hosting events online in the future?

I feel like they’re so much easier to run (laughs). I don’t have to check if rooms are free, or pick up catering because that’s always been a bit of an ordeal…

I think the hardest part about any of this is being able to find time. Even when we're all at home it's still really hard to find a time where we can all be in a call together, like someone will finish their lecture and join in just as we're finishing a call!

There’s a good way of seeing all of this though. Talking online has connected us better and helped us be more present because we have to make up for not being there for each other physically.


Beyond her role as IEEESB President, Sarah Francis is also a Part III Electrical and Electronic Engineering student. The IEEE is a professional association for electronic engineering and electrical engineering, telecommunications engineering, and computer engineering, with chapters – including student branches – worldwide.