Planning Notes: How To Put on Your Own Student IE Conference

By Hilary Grimes-Casey, PhD, University of Michigan
and Amy E. Landis, PhD, University of Pittsburgh

Following the success of the second student-run Potawatomi Sustainability and Industrial Ecology conference in 2007, it is time to suggest and encourage students of industrial ecology around the world to steal this concept and create their own meeting place and a regional academic community. From early organizing (get your university/advisor's support! Identify the audience, the goals, and the activities!) to thinking about funding (we've done it on little or nothing, but some institutions, foundations or agencies might be interested in supporting such a unique event!) to planning (make sure the student organizers are in communication! Find a venue that's accessible, desirable, and has everything you need!) to the actual event (relax, have fun, and let the networking and collaboration flow!), prior student organizing committee members of the "Potawatomi" conference have compiled some great tips on how to get started, what not to do, and how to make sure it all comes together into a novel approach to academic and professional development for all participants.

  1. Organize-- Identify regional partners: who do you want to attend the conference?
    1. Inviting 'external' collaborators is an important step of your local IE conference planning; without them you're left with people from your own research circle that you probably already interact with. For example, we tapped our advisors' networks to involve research groups in the Midwest from several different universities.
    2. Establish your organizing committee such that one person from each identified institution or group is actively involved. This way you ensure that you've got a local who can recruit participation from their group.
    3. Make sure you've got your advisor's support.
  2. Identify themes, goals
    1. Articulating themes and goals will make the conference more useful to participants. For example, our themes to date have been in the broad areas of sustainability and industrial ecology to involve as many students as possible. Our goals have been to create a student-centered research community and a unique symposium tradition for active student participation.
    2. Consider conference agenda items: presentations...poster session? Local industry tours? Speakers? Workshops? Classes? Do they support your theme/goals? What do you want to do during the conference? If one of your goals is student and peer networking, then include social time; we've always had an informal poster session in someone's room or suite where everyone brings snacks and drinks to - we hang the posters on the wall with tape and eat, drink, and socialize. (It really is a good time and keeps everybody together for additional networking and socializing).!)
    3. A unique deliverable, something more novel than the typical proceedings, might solidify the outcomes of the conference. One idea was an online 'proceedings' that might also be a networking tool, virtual meeting place, etc. We lacked the expertise to get that done, but maybe some of you could envision how to do it. Also, a deliverable is something funders might seek. Obviously one of our deliverables has been news articles in ISIE; another option might be seeking a journal willing to publish proceedings.
  3. Consider funding
    1. Big money funding is NOT necessary to successfully put on a student IE conference. Start by examining what you actually need that costs money. Our minimum needs (plus a few extras):
      1. Materials: folders, name badges, printed agendas, tape or tacks for posters. We've begged, borrowed, or stolen these to date.
      2. Meeting room reservations cost money. However, choosing the right location (with affordable meeting room space) and bringing your own equipment (laptop, projector) can keep the costs down. We've either asked a supportive advisor to pay for the meeting space out of their funds, or we've hit up a local organization for a small donation in exchange for distribution of fliers and acknowledgement as a Conference Supporter.
      3. Participant Travel, Room, & Board: We've left students to their own devices. . Usually your advisor has funds for travel to conferences- this is the place to use that! Most universities will also offer student scholarships or funds for travel assistance to conference.
      4. Invited Speaker: you'll need funds if you want Al Gore to talk at your student IE conference, however we've traditionally relied on the philanthropy of others. Some speakers just like to be invited (thanks Raj Reddy from Alcoa Corp!). "Sell" them the benefits of mingling with talented graduate students (e.g. potential employees). Others expect remuneration for their services, or at least accommodation and travel expenses covered.
      5. Meals: while participants usually pay for their own food, one year we were able to get an organization to sponsor a dinner (thanks Institute for Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago!)
      6. Registration Fees: These can provide funds for the above activities. However, we've never charged a registration fee for two reasons: we want to keep the conference affordable for students, and getting approval to accept, process, and use the money is extremely complicated.
      7. You might also consider A cash or gift award for 'best presentation' or something.
    2. Larger amounts of funding will require advance planning - about a year in advance for NSF money and as early as six months for government or university administration sources). This will go easier if you or your advisor(s) have a relationship with your funding agency already. There will be rules at your institution to follow if you decide to write a grant proposal, check with your department of research. Other sources to consider are foundations or non-governmental institutions if you have connections. As an example, Alcoa Foundation may award grants if you establish a connection with a local manufacturing site, that is interested in your event's goals or outcomes. Works better if the event has an 'active' component, such as service or outreach.
  4. Divide up general tasks/to do list among organizing committee!
    1. Find a faculty conference advisor.
    2. Delegate and share the organizing responsibilities amongst the student organizing committee.
    3. Set up a mode of communication between committee members, such as group emails and conference calls ( offers a free service in the US).
    4. Some of the tasks you'll want to begin assigning include: venue reservations, funding solicitation, someone to collect and set up abstract review, web-publisher, keynote speaker recruiter...
  5. Identify venue and dates
    1. Depending on what region "Potawatomi" is to be held, may require 6 months to a year. A convention center or hotel that can provide meeting rooms, A/V equipment, meals, and lodging all together may be simplest, unless organizers can agree on a host university. Ask for group rates, possibility of discounts for 'a bunch of poor grad students', etc.
    2. Do some research on your 'competition' - simultaneous or overlapping conferences. Think about your targeted participants and their travel options. Think about what the region offers that might keep people here for the whole conference. Think about time of year, weather, etc.
      1. We've made our PSIEC's a family affair. However, it's then ideal to make sure that the venue is family friendly for partners and kids.
  6. Consider keynote speaker, send initial invitations to participate
    1. See funding issues for speaker issues. Think about how a speaker would fit with the themes, and how their presence could benefit participants. Clearly outline for the intended speaker how you will promote their participation and how they will contribute to the outcomes of the conference. These are benefits to them too.
    2. Send invitations (with tentative agenda) to student participants first, and ask for a fairly quick commitment to get a 'head count' - but alert them to the added benefits of having an 'expert speaker'. Speakers will judge the worthwhile-ness of attending by the numbers they'll be speaking to. Participants will probably judge the worthwhile-ness of attending on who else might be there to hear their presentation (and maybe offer a job)
  7. Consider a 'special' session to extend the interaction: In the past we've held evening discussion sessions on 'Places to publish sustainability work- what does the ISI index mean,' 'Post-doc or real job,' etc. Or let participants make suggestions throughout that day by submitting their ideas on note-cards.
  8. Solicit abstracts for peer review
    1. Decide whether you want a poster session, just oral presentations, or both. Ask for abstracts early, and establish a review committee to determine their fit with the conference. The review process also establishes some credibility. Make it clear to abstract submitters how to submit, to whom, by when, and how it will be decided who gets a presentation, who gets a poster, etc.
    2. Ask the keynote speaker for an abstract, bio, title. At the very least, don't forget to ask them for their name and affiliation!
    3. Consider whether you want to publish abstracts in conference handouts (or perhaps later) and make that clear to participants at this stage.
    4. Utilize your organizing committee members to recruit others from their research groups and universities to participate in the conference.
    5. Websites are uber helpful for publicizing and sharing your information. You can utilize any of our past sites as templates ( Also, we've used the website as an abstract submission venue- you only need to be moderately web-design savvy to get this working.
  9. Finalize agenda, follow up
    1. Alert participants to presentation acceptance and details of attendance, ask for any conditions or details to help with agenda setting (i.e. someone has to leave early, etc).
    2. Graciously thank speaker again for participation, ask if they need anything, lavish them with praise, and keep pushing for bio/abstract/title.
    3. Keep reminding participants to make their hotel reservations. In the past, we've said that your hotel reservation serves as your conference registration. You do need to know who is coming and how many people to expect. Hotel reservations are an easy way of estimating.
    4. Make sure all tasks are getting done.
    5. Check with participants to see if they need any assistance that you can offer (how to get from an airport to a hotel, etc). This may be easiest if you can set up a website, or offer suggestions by email, at the time of the invitation. At least some guidance on available services is probably necessary.
    6. Check with venue to make sure they haven't double booked the rooms, etc. Can you put up signs in lobby, have a sign-in table, etc?
  10. Follow up, follow up, follow up
    1. Repeat 9. Again. Again.
    2. Establish 'welcome committee' or arrival procedures (see 6e)
    3. Start thinking about what happens at the end and how you will wrap up your conference.
      1. If you want to do it again, don't let people leave without recruiting a new conference organizing committee and a new faculty conference advisor!
      2. Consider a conference report- but don't let anyone depart without recruiting someone to take the lead on this endeavor, and make sure that they have one or two supporters. Identify where to submit.
    4. Afterward - thank you notes to speakers, write-up if required for funding, and planning for the next year...
  11. Have fun! Make connections! Start planning for next year!
International Society for Industrial Ecology | Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies | 195 Prospect St. New Haven Connecticut 06511 USA | Contact us at 203.432.6953 or email

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