It was noon on Saturday, January 30th, and I was sitting in the Texas Instruments (TI) Electronic Design Lab in the new Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Building on U of I's campus. The space is full of electronic equipment: rows of lab benches with soldering irons and various electrical engineering accoutrements, brilliantly bright overhead lighting, and the first “Smart Board” I had ever seen. One wall of the laboratory is plate glass and looks out into the ECE Building’s lobby. The design choice makes me imagine that upperclassmen must walk by and chuckle at all the freshmen taking ECE 110, the introduction to electronics lab, as if they were animals in a zoo.

The workshop I was observing was in the middle of the introductory lecture, but, much to nobody’s surprise, a pack of befuddled-looking undergraduates conspicuously entered at the front of the room and stood awkwardly until finally shifting to the back to find seats among the many others who had the respect to have been on time. The most remarkable thing about this situation on that bright-and-early Saturday morning was that the students were all there because they wanted to be.

It was the final day of ECE Pulse, a student-founded, student-run, and student-focused conference for electrical and computer engineers. The students had gathered in the TI Design Lab to participate in the Advanced Circuits Workshop in which they would build a pulse oximeter heart monitor. There was also a novice-level workshop going on almost simultaneously in a different room where students assembled electronic pianos.

I sat down with Ankit Jain, an ECE graduate student and the current big boss for ECE Pulse. He’s been affiliated with the conference for all of its existence, having been on the founding committee, and feels very strongly about its importance. This year, he is the acting director for ECE Pulse and is helping to train some current committee members to be the directors next year.

“ECE Pulse exists for many reasons. For one, one of the most important reasons, is that it helps students in ECE not only build their self-confidence, but also to get a good picture of what’s out there — what kind of technologies companies are working on right now and what kind of technologies they could be working on when they graduate. It helps them get a feel for the real-world, for what’s happening outside of academia.”

Saturday was the fourth day of the conference. The first day was the previous Saturday, when the competitions took place. The competitions are designed to challenge ECE students to apply what they’ve learned in courses, to test their skills, and to bring attention to how useful those skills are. The competitions included a reverse-engineering contest, a software design challenge, a signal processing challenge, and a special event for freshmen and sophomores called the Amazing Race. In the Amazing Race, contestants competed in a scavenger hunt of sorts that consisted of various electrical engineering or computer science puzzles and culminated in constructing a 3D printed robot which the first 5 winners were able to keep.

The following week, Thursday and Friday evening and all day Saturday were full of speakers, workshops, networking mixers, and a startup panel. “There’s a lot of networking that goes on during this conference, whether it be after the panels or the talks, or during the official networking events,” Ankit told me. “The Startup Panel in particular is important -- a bunch of people from startups field questions about, well, anything related to founding a startup or running a small business in this field. Students meet with the people in the panel and sometimes get internships or jobs. It’s really an amazing opportunity, even though the focus of the event is not recruitment.”

The conference has expanded quite a bit in its five short years. In its first year, it boasted around 200 registered attendees. in 2016, it could proudly claim over 500 registered participants, a hefty chunk of the 2,208 total enrolled ECE students. “We hope that we can continue to grow,” Ankit said with a smile. “The dream, of course, would be to have everyone participate. I’ve already seen the conference grow from just one person’s dream into what it is now. I thought it was an accomplishment when we had 250 people. Seeing over 500 is just amazing.”

I asked how the conference came about — who was that one person with the dream?
“The ECE Pulse conference only exists because of one person: Ekta Shah. Without Ekta, the conference simply wouldn’t be.”

Ankit insisted on calling Ekta, who is currently in India, to talk to her. Even in a brief phone call, her modesty and dedication to the event were apparent. “I realized that ECE didn’t have its own conference,” she told me, “and I realized that at the standard recruiting events, it’s all very synthetic. Recruiters can’t see the students for who they really are, to see them actually engage in their work. I thought it would be great to have an event where not only could students learn about the current state of the industry, but also to help recruiters identify talent outside of a submitted resume.”

Ekta reiterated that ECE Pulse was intended to be student-centric from the very beginning, something that, as Ankit explained, is a lot more subtle than one might imagine. “We try to work around students’ schedules,” he said. “We try to plan the events at times when students won’t necessarily be in class or at a job. That’s why we have to take two weekends: so that there’s time for everything."

Another big draw, as with most events for students, is food. “We want to get food people actually want to eat,” he said proudly. “At a lot of events, especially those geared more toward students, toward undergrads, attendees are promised food but met with stale bagels or bad pizza. As students ourselves, we appreciate it when a group or an event goes out of their way to get food that is actually palatable, that you eat not just because you’re hungry but because you enjoy it.” True to his word, the menu for the conference ranged from Papa Del’s and Antonio’s Pizza to Maize, Jimmy John’s, and Noodles & Company.

Since the event is by the students and for the students, the competitions and workshops are, as one might expect, only open to students. The talks and panels, on the other hand, are open to anyone who would like to learn more about the electrical engineering and computer science industry. Although future competitions will most assuredly remain student-only, there’s a chance that with more funding and more support, even the workshops could be open to the public.

Other than the desire for more attendees, ECE Pulse also wants to expand its programming: more companies, more speakers, more panels, more workshops, more everything.. If you or your company are interested in sponsoring ECE Pulse, speaking at the conference, or volunteering to assist with it in the future, you can contact the ECE Pulse Team at any time via their website.