Accreditation Must Keep Pace with the Times
After two decades, some limited changes in ABET criteria are needed.
Opinion by John Orr
In true election-year spirit, I could say that proposed revisions to ABET engineering accreditation criteria 3 and 5 will solve every problem in engineering education and in the engineering profession. But as engineers we deal with the real world, not with hyperbole. Our goal is to develop an optimal solution given the resources and constraints, and to consider all of our stakeholders. That principle certainly applies to the development of accreditation criteria. As vice chair of the Engineering Accreditation Commission, I would like to offer some insight into how the proposed changes came about.
My own association with engineering accreditation began as a new electrical engineering department head in 1990, in the days of purely prescriptive criteria. Our program evaluator questioned the amount of credit awarded for our capstone design projects. We were quite proud of our project emphasis and more than a little offended to have this experience questioned, but we went to work and developed an assessment tool that we use to this day to evaluate the student outcomes from capstone projects. These results convinced the next reviewer that we met the criteria and positioned our program well for the introduction of what was then called Criteria 2000. In fact, my institution volunteered to be one of two pilot schools visited in the fall of 1996 under the new criteria. I can recall our faculty discussions about what “multidisciplinary teams” and “contemporary issues” would likely mean to our evaluator, who would be as new to this as we were.
In addition to receiving several visits, I have now completed over 20 visits as an evaluator or team chair. It is rewarding and invigorating to see the range of quality programs across the nation, and now across the world. I have found competent, dedicated, hard-working faculty as well as students who really want to learn and who are fiercely supportive of their programs and schools. With a good team, these visits can truly be positive, quality-enhancing experiences for everyone involved. Of course, the criteria are key components of the process. The introduction of Criteria 2000 represented a revolution that required major changes for both the programs and the ABET evaluation process. We can all be proud of the result. Independent studies have confirmed the positive effects, and many of the initial difficulties have been resolved. However, it would be wrong to assume that we got the criteria exactly correct for all time. Hence it would be irresponsible to not conduct a review of the current performance and relevance of the criteria. The world has changed, higher education has changed, and the engineering profession has changed since 1996. The good news is that these have all changed in the direction that “Criteria 2000” envisioned, so any modifications from this review can be incremental, not revolutionary. This review process began in 2009 with outreach to stakeholders and review of the substantial literature on the education of future engineers. Among many detailed findings were some broad conclusions to guide any changes:
- Expectations for the profession place new emphasis on business and entrepreneurial skills, but no less emphasis on the so-called “soft” skills and educational breadth that Criteria 2000 introduced.
- The current outcomes overlap with each other and do not have the most logical organization.
- The relation of the outcomes (Criterion 3) to the curriculum (Criterion 5) is not clear, with some program aspects perhaps better addressed in the curriculum and others better addressed as outcomes.
- The same words mean different things to different people, and this becomes particularly troublesome when describing broad and sometimes abstract areas of professional competency. Hence careful word choice and definition of terms are needed.
- For many programs, resources have become even more constrained, so it is a responsibility of the accreditation process to minimize its demand on resources, consistent with accomplishing the accreditation mission.
Consideration of these findings, together with the more than 70 recommendations for additions to the student outcomes, resulted in the draft criteria along with a revised preamble and set of definitions. These are published on the ABET website for comments. The published draft text is almost certainly not perfect. The current wording has already benefited from external input, and more is being learned during this comment period.
John Orr is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, vice chair of the ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission, and an ASEE Fellow.