Ace of Clubs

A student-run chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery is getting noticed both on- and off-campus

By Jason Togyer

Chess. Water polo. Freestyle rapping. A cappella singing. Snowboarding. Swing dancing. Rowing. Baseball, foosball, racquetball and roller hockey.

More than 250 student organizations are competing for the attention of CMU undergraduates. Some focus on sports or hobbies; others celebrate ethnic heritage or encourage involvement in politics and activism.

This spring, another organization--the university's three-year-old student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery--waded into that crowded marketplace of ideas. For the first time, it participated in the campus' Activities Fair, a semi-annual event where student-run organizations recruit new members.

And while the words "computing machinery" may not trigger the same visceral reaction as "snowboarding," the event went well--with a few exceptions. Says Shashank Pradhan, an SCS senior, with a laugh: "With some people, as soon as you told them what 'ACM' stands for, they ran away."

On the other hand, some also stayed because of what "ACM" stands for--the world's first (founded in 1947) and largest (92,000 members) educational and professional society devoted to computing and computer technology. "Recruiters are impressed when they hear the letters 'ACM' because the reputation is so well known," says Pradhan, who this year chaired the committee that publishes the student chapter's newsletter, ACM Communications.

The CMU group was founded by Geeta Shroff (E'08, CS'08,'10), who also served as its first president. It was chartered by the parent organization in 2008. One of more than 500 student ACM chapters around the world, the only requirements for membership in the chapter--informally known as ACM@CMU--are an interest in computing (not all of the members are affiliated with SCS), active participation in one of the chapter's committees, and regular attendance at weekly meetings. Underwriting from companies such as Lockheed Martin has enabled the student ACM chapter to defray many of its costs.

Will Zhang, a computer science junior who served as president during the 2010-11 academic year, says about 25 students regularly attend the chapter's meetings. Many of those meetings have featured lectures by people working in computer science--an April session, for instance, hosted Matt Maroon, founder of Blue Frog Gaming, which is developing applications for Facebook and other social networking sites.

Besides its lecture series, several outreach activities have helped raise the chapter's profile on campus. In February, student members of ACM presented a town hall-style discussion in the Rashid Auditorium where managers from five multinational banks--Barclays, Citibank, Credit Suisse, JPMorgan Chase and Macquarie--discussed the ways that global finance depends on technology. "The (theme) in our ACM chapter has been connecting with industry," Zhang says. Student ACM members also distributed résumé books from more than 150 SCS undergraduates to corporate recruiters during the university's Technical Opportunities Conference.

ACM@CMU members credit Catherine Copetas, SCS assistant dean for industrial relations and director of special events, with arranging those industry connections and keeping students focused and motivated. "Catherine is amazing," Zhang says. "We would not be around if it weren't for her." Adds Jen Solyanik, another SCS junior and associate editor of ACM Communications, "Catherine helps us so much."

Though the professional aspects are important, there's time for fun as well. Besides obviously computer-oriented activities such as coding competitions and an end-of-semester Xbox gaming party that featured Microsoft's new Kinect technology, students are using the ACM chapter as an opportunity to make friends across class years and disciplines. "Some of the younger students have joined ACM to get an upperclassman's perspective on CMU," says Solyanik. ACM members share tips on which classes to take and how to balance campus life with a full CMU course load, she says. Jason MacDonald, an SCS junior who chaired the group's IT committee in 2010-11, says: "If you're a freshman, it's definitely a good resource, because it's a good environment to come in and get advice from upperclassmen."

While interest levels were high at the end of the spring semester, student groups tend to wax and wane, and clubs that bustle one year can stagnate the next. Zhang says a lot of work remains to be done to make the chapter self-sufficient and self-sustaining. "People come in and out--it's inevitable," he says. "We just have to continue to be visible, continue to recruit members and keep on operating."

Luckily, the ACM chapter's newest members from the recent freshman class seem to have a lot of energy, says Solyanik, who headed the group's internal development committee in 2010-11, "and I expect them to be around for a while."

She notes that one of the traditional knocks on the undergraduate experience at Carnegie Mellon has been that there's too much work and not enough fun. "People sometimes feel like students aren't taking enough advantage of everything that CMU has to offer," Solyanik says, "and I think that ACM can really help with that."

More information about ACM@CMU is available at the group's website, www.acm-cmu.org.
For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu