ABET Changes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
While some revisions are welcome, others are shortsighted.
Opinion by Mary Besterfield-Sacre and Larry J. Shuman
Changes proposed to Criterion 3 by ABET, the board that accredits engineering and technology programs, reduce the required outcomes from 11 to seven. There are benefits in the proposal, but also problems and missed opportunities to match criteria with 21st century education. Having published a review of some of the current outcomes in 2005, we offer our examination of the changes. [Editor’s Note: See “Standards of Practice” for a side-by-side comparison of the current and proposed criteria.]
Proposed Outcome 7, “an ability to function effectively on teams that establish goals, plan tasks, meet deadlines, and analyze risk and uncertainty,” recognizes a need for project management skills. Further, introducing risk analysis requires students to learn Failure Mode Effects Analysis and other basic techniques. Risk assessment certainly belongs in capstone design; better, it should be incorporated early and often through the curriculum.
Proposed Outcome 6, “an ability to recognize the ongoing need for additional knowledge and locate, evaluate, integrate, and apply this knowledge appropriately,” allows educators to assess how students apply their learning both in and out of the classroom. Faculty may evaluate the impact of internships, co-ops, studies abroad, and organizational and entrepreneurship activities. They should also assess how students look beyond current resources, seek out faculty and other experts, and integrate and apply new knowledge.
Proposed Outcome 4, “an ability to communicate effectively with a range of audiences,” requires expanding both the variety of audiences (e.g., peers, professionals, laypersons, K-12) and types of communications (e.g., oral, written, videos, posters). Engineers must be able to explain their proposed solutions to diverse audiences.
Outcome 7 has two serious deficiencies. First, today’s engineering challenges require teams from multiple areas. By removing “multidisciplinary,” we leave it to industry to train engineers, missing opportunities to bring students together with social scientists and the humanities to address today’s complex problems. Second, engineering occurs in culturally diverse settings with individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, countries, ages, and genders.
Proposed Outcome 5, “an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts,” packs too much into one outcome. First, assessing students’ ability to recognize and make informed judgments requires an upper-level engineering ethics course. An introductory freshman or philosophy course won’t do it. Second, engineering ethical dilemmas are complex and not easily resolved. To assume that students have acquired such an ability is problematic, until confronted in practice with an actual situation. The impact of engineering solutions in these multiple contexts suggests providing an expanded range of service learning/design projects both domestically and internationally to address this criterion. This proposal is best left as the original separate outcomes.
Proposed Outcome 3 introduces a focus on “engineering judgment.” This requires measuring students’ interpretation of experimental results—especially ambiguous results—requiring students to make judgments beyond current data. Simulations or case studies could be needed for students to demonstrate such ability.
Troublesome is the omission of “knowledge of contemporary issues.” Students need knowledge of such current issues as climate change, jobs versus pollution, crumbling infrastructure, and globalization to understand the long-term impact of their engineering solutions.
ABET justifies collapsing outcomes that are “vague and broad” and “difficult to assess.” However, all 11 can be assessed. Engineering programs define each outcome’s meaning, define metrics, and find or develop measures demonstrating their impact. By consolidating outcomes, the revised criteria become more, not less, ambiguous.
The preamble is new. Is this something to be assessed? Must the seven outcomes be mapped into the preamble’s three capabilities? Why is “multicultural” only mentioned here and not with teamwork? If it is important to describe the attributes graduating engineers should possess, then shouldn’t they be incorporated into the criteria?
ABET has introduced needed material into engineering education and is providing an incentive to address co-curricular activities. However, what is gained by reducing the 11 outcomes to seven? Might it be better to expand, possibly adding innovation and entrepreneurship? Also, why restrict outcomes to those who will become practicing engineers? Why not develop criteria that apply to the broader career paths that the 21st-century graduates are now taking? We hope this piece contributes to what should be a healthy dialogue and welcome your feedback.
Mary Besterfield-Sacre is an associate professor of industrial engineering and a Faculty Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, where Larry J. Shuman is a professor of industrial engineering and senior associate dean for academic affairs.