Engaging Students: An Association Perspective

Burt Dicht, CAE

Burt Dicht, CAE
Director, Student and Academic Education Programs

My first engagement with students occurred in 1984 when I was a young engineer working for Northrop Aircraft in Southern California. The AIAA student section at USC was looking for a speaker to address “What it was like to be an engineer.” The students specifically asked for a young engineer and the management of Northrop selected me. I had never done an external presentation like that and I can only say “I was hooked” from the moment I started.

There is nothing like speaking to students. It’s energizing, informative, inspiring and fun. Little did I know at that point, but that was the beginning of a lifetime of engaging students, both professionally as an association staff member and as an association volunteer. We, as association professionals, understand the importance of university student membership, as we strive to introduce them to the profession and help prepare them for practice. Of course, there is also some self-interest, as student members typically are the largest source of new members for the association.

There is also the added need for engaging and attracting pre-university students, especially for STEM technical societies like mine, which depend on a steady stream of new talent to choose to study in our fields of interest. For many associations, dealing with students, on both the pre-university and university levels remains a challenge. Now, after more than thirty years of professional and volunteer engagement of students, I can’t offer a sure-fire remedy if you are encountering challenges, but I do offer some guidelines to help put you on a path to success.

I’m dividing these guidelines into two distinct areas: Association Programs offered on a society or association level to all students and for Face-to-Face Programs conducted locally.

Association Programs:

  • Does the program/service/resource address a real need or add value to the student?
    Associations have a history for creating programs we think are valuable, but do they really address the needs of the students we aim to impact? Don’t launch programs because a well-connected staff member or volunteer thinks it’s a good idea. If you are creating a new program for students, create a business case and assess the need, options and plan before implementing the program.
  • Have you sought out external feedback and guidance?
    Associations also have a history for deciding on new programs from only an internal perspective. For something this important, do not rely only on internal staff and volunteers. Seek feedback from your intended audience . . . the students. In addition, have you talked with teachers, faculty, parents and other stakeholders about the program? Their guidance can help you design a more effective program.
  • Is the program/service/resource accessible to all students?
    Income and resource disparity is a real issue. The goal for your association program should be to ensure resources are available to all students at little to no cost and are appropriate to varying degrees of skill and funding levels. The more students who have access, the more impact you will demonstrate.

Face-to-Face Programs:

  • Are the speakers/presenters/facilitators engaging?
    Not everyone is equipped to be in front of an audience. Ensure that those running the program and are in front of the students are enthusiastic, entertaining, informative and accessible. It won’t matter how good your program is if the presenter losses the audience. Students can sense when a speaker is truly interested in them.
  • Is the program/presentation meaningful?
    If you are going to fully engage the students it is essential that students perceive the presentation and activities as being meaningful to them. Understand why they are there and ensure that the program focus addresses those needs. I have presented at more than 150 colleges and universities and have talked about the transition from student to practicing engineer. In doing so, I related a fear that I had before starting my first job; that I didn’t know how to do anything. It created an immediate connection because I related to the students from the start and they knew they would get information that would help them
  • Is the activity within the student’s competency level? Any hands-on activities you offer during the program should be designed to be achievable to ensure the student feels a sense of accomplishment. It is fine to stretch their competency level slightly so they can learn and grow, but in the end having them succeed will positively impact their engagement. An example are my activities with the Civil Air Patrol where I frequently worked with cub scouts. At their age, their manual dexterity is limited, so I designed an activity launching Alka-Seltzer rockets with that mind. The scouts were all able to construct and launch their rockets and through the looks on their faces I had them. They wanted to learn and do more.

Keep in mind successful student engagement requires persistence and experimentation. Your success depends on addressing the needs of the students and not your association’s needs. Use the above guidelines, but also tailor your programs based on available resources and your objectives. Good luck and have fun!

Burt Dicht, CAE  is Director, Student and Academic Education Programs at IEEE.