ABET accredits programs in engineering, engineering technology, applied science, and computing at colleges and universities around the world. As Joe Sussman, the organization’s chief accreditation and information officer, explained, ABET’s accreditation of a program is intended to indicate to potential employers and others that students graduating from that program have received an education that meets certain quality standards and prepares them for a career in their profession. ABET accredits programs; it does not certify institutions, students, degrees, or facilities.
ABET is a nongovernmental federation of 35 member societies, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers, IEEE, and American Society for Engineering Education. The member societies develop program criteria, appoint the board of delegates, nominate members to the four accreditation commissions (in applied science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology) that carry out the accreditation process, and recruit and assign program evaluators. ABET’s work is done by more than 2,000 volunteers from the member societies.
ABET accreditation is voluntary, and as of October 1, 2015, ABET had accredited more than 3,600 programs at 741 institutions in 29 countries. The accreditation process, which generally takes 18–21 months, involves both a self-study report and program evaluators from outside the institution.
There are eight criteria for ABET accreditation of an engineering program1:
- Criterion 1 concerns students, specifically monitoring to foster their success, assessment of their progress and performance, admission procedures, assignment of academic credit, and other related issues.
- Criterion 2 concerns the program’s educational objectives, which must be consistent with the ABET criteria. Program educational objectives define what the graduate is expected to be able to do 3–5 years after graduation.
- Criterion 3 concerns student outcomes, such as the abilities to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering; to design a system within economic, social, ethical, global, and other constraints; to function on multidisciplinary teams; to recognize of life‐long learning and contemporary issues; and to communicate effectively.
- Criterion 4 concerns institutional quality management systems and how they assess whether and to what degree programs succeed in accomplishing stated learning outcomes.
- Criterion 5 specifies curricula: An engineering degree program must include, for example, 1 year of mathematics and basic sciences; 1½ years of various engineering topics, including design and practical
1 Effective at the time of the forum discussions, the Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs: Effective for Reviews During the 2015–2016 Accreditation Cycle (approved November 1, 2014) are available on the ABET website, www.abet.org, under Accreditation Criteria and Supporting Docs. The proposed changes are also posted there under Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs, 2016–2017. This document, excluding specific program criteria, is included as appendix C of this summary.
application; a culminating design project; and a general education component that is consistent with the program’s educational objectives.
- Criterion 6 concerns faculty numbers, qualifications, and competence; interactions with students as well as industrial and professional practitioners; and professional development.
- Criterion 7 concerns facilities, including laboratories, equipment, resources, and supporting infrastructure.
- Criterion 8 concerns institutional support such as funding and staffing to ensure the quality and continuity of the program.
There is a process for making changes to any of the criteria, Sussman explained. Proposals for modifying criteria can come from a variety of places, but most commonly originate with the member societies. ABET’s Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) is responsible for considering proposed changes to the criteria for engineering programs and deciding on their disposition.
Consideration of a proposal starts with the EAC Criteria Committee, which makes recommendations to the EAC. If the EAC approves a proposed change, it sends the proposed amendment to the relevant Area Delegation (representing the member professional societies in the same four areas as the commissions) for a “first reading.” The Area Delegation can reject the proposal, ask the EAC to work on it further, or approve the proposal and release it for a period of public review and comment.
If the proposed changes are released for comment, the Criteria Committee is responsible for reviewing the comments and deciding whether the changes should be modified. Then the proposed changes, whether or not revised by the Criteria Committee, are sent back to the EAC, which also reviews the comments and decides whether further changes should be made. Next, the proposed changes are sent to the Area Delegation for a “second reading.” The delegation can reject the proposed changes, ask for more work on them, or approve them and determine a phase‐in period during which the changes will be adopted in the accreditation criteria.
The current version of the ABET engineering criteria, instituted in 2000, is known as EC2000. Several speakers observed that EC2000 represented a major philosophical shift from the previous criteria. Mickey Wilhelm, dean emeritus at the Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville and a member of the ABET board of directors, noted that before EC2000, ABET focused on ensuring that graduates of a program were following the published curriculum. In Wilhelm’s view, EC2000 shifted the focus to student outcomes—what the students had learned and whether that learning prepared them to enter the engineering workforce. Sussman reported widespread national and international acceptance of the new approach and of the new criteria of the EC2000.
The proposed changes now under consideration (see appendix C) had their roots in discussions that took place in 2009, said Patricia Brackin (Rose‐Hulman Institute of Technology), current chair of the EAC Criteria Committee. At that point, the EAC was receiving requests from member societies to look at the student outcomes, labeled (a) through (k), in Criterion 3, and to consider adding new criteria.
According to Phillip Borrowman (Hanson Professional Services), a past president of ABET, the premise that the EAC used to decide to review the criteria was that academic constituents were having difficulty assessing some of the student outcomes and as a result were receiving a substantial number of shortcomings during accreditation reviews. However, he noted that this premise bothered him because reviewing the criteria for changes to make it easier for programs to meet them did not seem like a reasonable justification. In fact, according to Borrowman, the EAC accredits almost every program it evaluates: if all programs are meeting the criteria, it was unclear to Borrowman why a review of the criteria based on the given premise was considered.
The EAC recognized that many of the shortcomings reported each year concerning the criteria were related to Criterion 3 and so decided to reexamine that criterion. The Criteria Committee went through a multistep process, identifying the key stakeholders, reviewing correspondence received about Criterion 3, and conducting an in‐depth literature review. According to Brackin, this literature review included (but was not limited to) the following works: Engineering Change: A Study of the Impact of EC2000 (ABET, 2006), Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21stCentury (ASCE, 2008), Vision 2030 Reveals Workforce Development Needs (ASME, 2011), The Roadmap to 21stCentury Engineering (Duderstadt, 2008), Attributes of a Global Engineer: Findings from a Work‐in‐ProgressInternational Survey (Hundley, 2011), Graduate Attributes and Professional Competencies: Comparisons of theWashington Accord, Sydney Accord, and Dublin Accord (International Engineering Alliance, 2009), GraduateAttributes and Professional Competencies; Version 3 (International Engineering Alliance, 2013), Rising Above theGathering Storm, Revisited (National Academies, 2010), Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting EngineeringEducation to the New Century (National Academy of Engineering, 2005), and Position Statement No. 1752 onEngineering Education Outcomes (NSPE, 2010).
A task force assembled to review Criterion 3 determined that all 11 of the outcomes had at least mild shortcomings and that five of them—(d), (f), (h), (i), and (j)—had proved difficult to assess. As the task force members investigated the problems with the outcomes, they spoke with assessment experts who identified two concerns: use of the word “understand” in the outcomes and of “contemporary issues” in the criteria. Brackin reported confusion over the meaning of the latter, in terms of how broadly contemporary issues could be defined.
The task force concluded that the student outcome criteria had a number of problems that needed to be addressed. Some of the criteria were interdependent, some were too broad, and others were too vague.
Having reached this conclusion, the task force began to communicate with constituent groups and to solicit suggestions about how the criteria might be revised beginning in 2012–2013. The commission received proposals from constituent groups for additional student outcomes. The proposed additions brought the total number of student outcomes under consideration to 75. The task force grouped these suggested outcomes in six categories. The task force presented their findings to the full EAC in July 2013, at which time the work of the task force was transferred to the EAC Criteria Committee.
In July 2014, before a first reading, the Criteria Committee chose to send the proposed new categories out to constituent groups for feedback, and received more than 100 comments from member society committees and
individuals. Based on this feedback, the Criteria Committee added a seventh category to the list of student outcomes, resulting in seven topic areas:
- engineering problem solving,
- engineering design,
- measurement, testing, and quality assurance,
- communication skills,
- professional responsibility,
- professional growth, and
- teamwork and project management.
Brackin noted that the topic area added during this phase of the process was number 6, professional growth. This was largely due, she said, to the importance the Industrial Advisory Board placed on lifelong learning in their comments.
During the process, Brackin said, it became clear that some elements of Criterion 3 would more properly fit in Criterion 5, because much of Criterion 5 focuses on the definition or explanation of key terms. Because Criterion 3 assumes and uses those definitions, the committee proposed modifications to Criterion 5 as well. In addition, for the same reason, revisions were proposed to the introductory section, following the harmonized ABET definitions.
A number of forum participants said they felt that there had been a lack of communication about the proposed criteria changes and that a number of important stakeholders had not been informed of them until the process was far along. Several participants noted that concern about communication was one of the factors behind the decision to hold the NAE forum.
Donna Riley (Virginia Tech), a former program director for engineering education at the National Science Foundation (NSF), described a June 2015 letter to ABET about the proposed changes that was signed by 346 people from the engineering and education community, including 99 deans and associate deans. The letter had its origins in a session at the June 2015 annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), which Riley said was the first time many of the people at that meeting learned about the proposed changes.
The letter suggested that the process of developing and approving the changes be slowed down and the timeline extended to allow for input to be received from additional professional societies, deans, faculty, and industry stakeholders. In particular, it requested that the first reading of the proposed criteria, which the authors understood to be scheduled for July 2015, be delayed. (The first reading took place in October, 2015.)
Gerry Holder (University of Pittsburgh) reported on his perception of ABET’s response to the letter. Authored by past president Jamie Rogers and executive director Michael Milligan, the response said that if the EAC were to pass any proposed revision of Criterion 3 and Criterion 5, the ABET Board of Delegates would have to review and approve the proposal at first reading and that this step could not possibly happen before October 2015. Furthermore, the response said, even if it did, it was likely that the board would release the proposed criteria for two years of public
review and comment. However, Holder noted, the review and comment period would last only eight months, ending in June, 2016.
Patricia Daniels (University of Washington), who has worked extensively with ABET, explained that after getting feedback from the community, the EAC had produced a document that its members thought was much improved. At that point the Criteria Committee asked that the revised proposed changes be sent officially to the Engineering Area Delegation for the first reading and also be sent out again for public comment. Once the Criteria Committee receives the next round of feedback from NAE forum attendees and others, Daniels noted, it is likely to make additional changes in the criteria.
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