Less Is More
ABET’s Criterion 3 needs to be streamlined.
Opinion By Debra Larson, Ron McKean, and Steven Cramer
By most accounts, the paradigm change introduced through the 11 learning outcomes of ABET’s EC 2000 Criterion 3 has had a positive impact on engineering education. Our curricular attention was expanded beyond technical readiness to include design, teamwork, communications, professional responsibilities, ethics, contemporary issues, general education, and lifelong learning. Still, 10 years’ experience has exposed shortcomings and operational challenges. Now, with the pace of change that prompted Criterion 3 continuing to accelerate, many in our profession wish to add still more outcomes, believing that these will attract and produce a generation of engineers better prepared to solve the challenges of the new millennium. Although well-intentioned, such an approach fails to recognize important issues facing higher education, including public skepticism about value; an increased regulatory and auditing environment; demands for improved access, retention, and graduation rates; and significant declines in state funding appropriations. More outcomes would result in diminishing educational returns and less agile, less responsive programs, and would impede innovations.
Rather than a more extensive list of outcomes, tomorrow’s challenges demand lean processes, innovation, flexibility, and multidisciplinary collaborations. Therefore, the Academic Advisory Council (AAC) to the Board of Directors of ABET is proposing a different, “less is more” approach to Criterion 3, Student Outcomes. The AAC – a diverse group of academic administrators who represent the broad spectrum of U.S. universities that offer ABET-accredited programs in engineering, engineering technology, computing, and applied science programs – recommends that Criterion 3 be refined to five core outcomes while encouraging program distinctiveness.
First, in the context of the engineering accreditation criteria, we are proposing a consolidation of the existing outcomes on experiments and data, design, teamwork, engineering problem solving, professional and ethical responsibilities, communications, and tools into four core outcomes that might read this way: A. An ability to perform measurement, data collection, and analysis utilizing current engineering tools and techniques. B. An ability to identify, formulate, and solve a range of engineering problems. C. An ability to apply engineering principles to design a system, component, or process with realistic constraints. D. Demonstration of professional behaviors through teaming skills, communications, and ethical responsibilities.
Second, the AAC is proposing a fifth outcome, whereby each institutional program shall specify one or more program-defined outcomes. This outcome will be informed by the program’s constituencies. It is intended to invite innovations and represent the program’s distinctiveness as reflected in its graduates. Third, Criterion 3 outcomes not captured in this consolidation – mathematics, science, and engineering; broad education; and contemporary issues – should be incorporated into Criterion 5. This criterion pertains to knowledge areas that form the foundation of a modern baccalaureate degree and are inherent in the proposed Criterion 3 outcomes A-D. Finally, the ability to engage in lifelong learning involves success and competency post-graduation and, as such, is better aligned with the focus of Criterion 2.
The ABET Accreditation Council, the commissions, and, ultimately, the ABET Board of Directors are considering this recommendation along with others. The AAC strongly values accreditation and the beneficial and modernizing changes brought forward by EC 2000. However, Criterion 3, developed primarily in the 1990s, is becoming misaligned with the challenges facing the engineering profession and higher education. These challenges require a bold vision, one that keeps accreditation relevant and valuable while encouraging future-forward solutions. We believe the AAC’s proposal does this by realigning and refining requirements into a simpler construct. “Less is more” is a paradoxically potent proposal for engineering in the 21st century.
Debra Larson is dean of engineering at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo; Ron McKean is interim associate dean of operations at Ferris State University’s College of Engineering Technology; Steven Cramer is associate dean of engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. All are members of the Academic Advisory Council (AAC) to the Board of Directors of ABET.