ECE grad students host sixth annual Power and Energy Conference at Illinois

ECE News

Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • ECE graduate students organized the sixth annual Power and Energy Conference at Illinois, or PECI, which took place Feb. 20-21 at the I-Hotel Conference Center.
  • The conference featured speakers from academia and industry, and gave students, professors, and professionals a chance to exchange research and network.
  • A unique commenting system gave anonymous feedback to the presenters to help them improve their speaking skills, and the last workshop featured an interactive improv game to help everyone practice presenting.

The I-Hotel Conference Center in Champaign was filled with aspiring engineers and established professionals Feb. 20-21 for the annual student-run Power and Energy Conference at Illinois, or PECI.

Graduate students in ECE’s power and energy systems area plan the conference each year. It features keynote speakers and presentations from professionals and students throughout industry and academia. Presenters gave talks on topics from renewable energy to microgrids and distributed power generation, and prominent companies like Ameren, John Deere, and Texas Instruments sent officials to speak at the event and sponsored it along with S&C, PowerWorld, ADX Research, and Intel.

Apart from providing power professionals with an annual conference to present and further their research, PECI is designed to actively help speakers improve their presentation skills. One way it does this is a highly developed commenting system, in which attendees are highly encouraged by the conference to give the presenters extensive constructive feedback.

Assistant Professor Hao Zhu at PECI 2015.
Assistant Professor Hao Zhu at PECI 2015.

“We implement prizes for the best paper, but we also have two prizes for the best commenters,” said Shamina Hossain, an ECE graduate student and PECI co-director. “After every presenter, the attendees fill out comment sheets, and we pick the two people that gave the best constructive criticism to receive an award for helping the presenters out. All of the feedback is sent back anonymously to each presenter.”

Along with highly encouraging constructive feedback, the conference also helps hone presentation skills by hosting an interactive workshop at the end that Hossain calls PowerPoint Karaoke. Attendees are selected to come up to the front of the room and present PowerPoint slides with anything from cat pictures to wacky ads, and are challenged to make a coherent presentation out of them.

A jazz band plays at the PECI social event.
A jazz band plays at the PECI social event.

“It’s a fun way to end the conference,” Hossain said. “The first time we ran it, we weren’t sure how many would stay, but we have a full room each time we do it. It’s a fun way to improve your presentation skills by improvising on whatever you have in front of you.”

Another benefit is exchanging research ideas and, as always, networking. After a PhD student finished his presentation at this year’s PECI,  Hossain struck up a conversation with him. To her surprise, they worked on a lot of similar research goals, and in a 20-minute chat, agreed to exchange data and collaborate on research.

Fellow co-director and graduate student Siming Guo remembers an even more serendipitous event. A PhD student came to PECI last year and mentioned to a few attendees that he had been stuck on a problem in his research.

“Funny enough, a fellow attendee happened to have written a paper solving that exact problem,” Guo said. “He sent the student his paper and the guy rushed back to the lab that same day to integrate it into his research.”

Attendees shake a leg at the PECI social event.
Attendees shake a leg at the PECI social event.

Guo noted that, apart from learning more about each presenter’s research, one of the greatest draws of going to the conference is being able to meet peers from all over the country and the world at one event.

Universities worldwide are attempting to solve the same problems in power engineering, but come at them from different angles, according to Guo. For example, Illinois leans toward  delivering practical solutions in line with industry trends. Other universities may focus their research more on theoretical modeling or game theory, and PECI allows attendees to meet people with different ideas to avoid contracting academic tunnel vision.

“The greatest draw of the event for me is just getting researchers out of bubbles,” Guo said.

Siming Guo and Shamina Hossain at PECI.
Siming Guo and Shamina Hossain at PECI.

Guo noted that most of the graduate students in his year are growing at the same pace, and he frequently sees familiar faces at the conferences he attends.

“There aren’t a whole lot of people in our field, so it’s great to meet up with students at other conferences and at PECI and see how we’ve all grown professionally,” he said.  

Hossain and Guo were also incredibly impressed with the department’s support of their event, and in welcoming engineers to the conference and securing talented presenters.

ECE Professor Pete Sauer speaks at PECI.
ECE Professor Pete Sauer speaks at PECI.

“The ECE Dpartment was so helpful in working with us to set up PECI,” Siming said. “Department Head Bill Sanders always comes down and gives a talk at the opening to welcome people to PECI, and Assistant Director of Corporate Relations Breanne Ertmer was instrumental in connecting us with great presenters from industry.”



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