Forum attendees considered whether the proposed ABET criteria would help ensure that students from accredited institutions are prepared for a career in engineering. A panel discussion was held to address how well an engineering education at ABET‐accredited institutions prepares graduates for industry needs, how well the proposed criteria might prepare students to become lifelong learners, and whether licensing of engineers should be included in the criteria.
Several attendees said that the new criteria do a good job of identifying the sorts of engineering skills that contemporary companies are looking for in their new hires.
Atsushi Akera (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) praised the reorganization of the student outcomes in Criterion 3, and said that, in his view, the new organization makes sense according to how engineering students should be educated. As someone who studies the history of engineering education, he has observed a number of changes in engineering education criteria since the Mann Report,1 and one of the things he found most notable about the proposed ABET criteria is their focus on professional engineering judgment in the context of practice. This is a welcome shift, he said.
In a brief response to Akera’s observation that the revised student outcomes follow the traditional engineering approach, Sheri Sheppard (Stanford University) commented that perhaps there should be an additional student outcome, at the very front of the list, reflecting the step in the engineering process that comes before identifying the problem. That step involves using ethnography and other social sciences to understand the important problems and needs of a particular population.
Dianne Chong (recently retired from Boeing Engineering, Operations, and Technology), who serves on ABET’s Engineering Accreditation Commission, said that the revised ABET criteria agree very well with what she has heard from various corporate department heads about what they need from every engineer they hire. Engineers should have good math, science, and engineering skills, be able to work well on teams, and be able to communicate well in both writing and speaking. She noted that companies like Boeing are looking for engineers who can take a systems approach in their work and think outside of their own disciplines. Generally speaking, Chong said, the revised criteria meet the needs of the profession, and serve the same purpose as the current criteria.
Frank Flores (Northrop Grumman Aerospace) was another of the participants who said he found a great deal to like about the new criteria. In particular, he said it appeared that ABET had worked to address many of the concerns related to communication and teamwork in the criteria. His company prefers to hire graduating students who have
1A Study of Engineering Education by Charles Riborg Mann, published in 1918 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
taken part in challenging student projects, and sponsors a number of such projects as a way to identify students who perform well on teams, so the focus on teams in the revised criteria is a positive step.
Other participants expressed concerns that the math and science components of the criteria had been somewhat weakened. David Whitman (University of Wyoming) pointed out that the new criteria focus on the application of science and math skills to solve engineering problems rather than on proficiency. While acknowledging that few practicing engineers ever evaluate an integral or solve a differential equation in their everyday work, he nonetheless would have preferred that the criteria keep a student outcome focused specifically on the assessment of math and science proficiency.
Col. Barry Shoop (West Point), who has served on the ABET board, focused on the sentence in the criteria describing in general what engineering students should be able to do:
These [proposed] criteria are intended to provide a framework of education that prepares graduates to enter the professional practice of engineering who are (i) able to participate in diverse multicultural workplaces; (ii) knowledgeable in topics relevant to their discipline, such as usability, constructability, manufacturability, and sustainability; and (iii) cognizant of the global dimensions, risks, uncertainties, and other implications of their engineering solutions.
There is little in that description that is specific to the discipline of engineering, he commented; indeed, he said he had colleagues who made the argument that a business major could meet those qualifications without having any engineering or technical expertise.
Some participants contended that the current ABET criteria do not guarantee that a graduating engineering student is ready for a job in industry and that the proposed criteria will do nothing to change that. Others felt that industry advisory boards could help university engineering departments do a more effective job of preparing their students for jobs in industry.
Phillip Borrowman (Hanson Professional Services) observed that companies generally have their own required outcomes for new engineering employees in addition to those specified in the ABET criteria—a clear sign, he said, that ABET’s minimum criteria are not sufficient to prepare engineering graduates to enter professional practice. Borrowman noted that when interviewing future graduates in engineering programs, most companies, his own included, are concerned with a program’s strength of compliance with its own unique criteria. According to Borrowman, these criteria are “usually more rigorous [than the ABET Criteria], with specifics regarding the open positions we are trying to fill.” Borrowman pointed out that in his experience, programs do not list learning experiences in their student outcomes beyond those identified by ABET, as they do not want to expand the criteria to be evaluated further than the (a) through (k) that will be evaluated by EAC. According to Borrowman, “they do not want to do the work necessary to show EAC that they also meet an (l), (m), or (n) outcome.”
A number of other forum participants from industry echoed Borrowman’s point about companies looking beyond the ABET criteria. Flores said that, while Northrop Grumman always looks at the particular qualifications of individual students, it prioritizes its hiring based on what it has learned are the strengths of different schools and hires from a relatively small set of schools whose strengths match what the company is looking for. Chong said that Boeing’s approach is similar, and Wayne Bergstrom (Bechtel Infrastructure and Power Corporation), the 2015–2016 president‐elect of ABET, agreed. Although Bechtel is an entirely different business with an entirely different business model, he said, its recruiting of engineering graduates is managed in a way that is very similar to what Flores and Chong described.
Borrowman summed up the discussion by saying that most companies, when they are interviewing future graduates of an engineering program, are concerned about how well that program complies with the company’s specific criteria for engineers. In other words, companies review programs in light of their specific needs and focus their recruitment efforts on programs that best meet those needs. In essence, he said, companies do their own form of “accreditation” and do not recruit from programs whose graduates do not meet the company’s criteria.
Borrowman also noted that there is a perverse incentive for engineering schools not to document in their student outcomes anything they do beyond the bare minimum that ABET requires for accreditation. The reason, he explained, is that if a school specifies more ambitious outcomes, it will then be judged on how well it meets those outcomes by program evaluators. The schools do not want to have to do the additional work required to document that they are indeed meeting goals over and above the minimum required by ABET.
Riley argued that lifelong learning was omitted from the new criteria and in its place is a call for information literacy, but that the two are not equivalent. Lifelong learning, unlike information literacy, carries with it the expectation that engineers should be able to think critically, act reflectively, and build intellectual power across disciplines. Information literacy is necessary for engineers who wish to engage in lifelong learning, but the latter represents a larger set of skills.
Julie Arendt (Virginia Commonwealth University) said that the revised sixth student outcome—“an ability to recognize the ongoing need for additional knowledge and locate, evaluate, integrate, and apply this knowledge appropriately”—is much more closely aligned with information literacy. A library can have an excellent collection, she explained, but if students do not use its resources they are not prepared for any sort of lifelong learning.
Two presenters addressed the licensing of engineers and its relationship with the ABET criteria.
Stuart Walesh, an independent consultant, began by noting that the proposed criteria are similar to the existing criteria in that they make no mention of licensure. This is a serious omission, he said, and he made a case for including licensing in the criteria, arguing that licensed practicing engineers are generally more likely to be competent, up to date on engineering practices, and ethical than their nonlicensed counterparts. They are more likely to be current, he
explained, because of the continuing education requirements that come with licensure, and more likely to be ethical in part because they know they will be held accountable by licensing boards. This general superiority of licensed engineers is one of the reasons that engineering students should be exposed to the basics of licensure.
In addition, having a license gives engineers an advantage in the search for jobs, even if they are self‐employed or starting their own company. For all these reasons, Walesh said, it makes sense to familiarize engineering students with licensing and the advantages of being licensed. He suggested that it would be enough to revise the second sentence in the proposed Criterion 5(c) to read as follows:
Students must be prepared to enter the professional practice of engineering through a curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier course work and incorporating appropriate engineering standards and multiple constraints and recognizing the role of the licensed engineer in protecting public health, safety, and welfare [proposed addition in italics].
Whitman viewed the licensing of engineers from a different perspective. State licensing boards—guided by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) Model Law requirements and by the laws of the individual state—determine whether a candidate has the competency to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public during his or her practice. An ABET‐accredited bachelor’s degree in engineering is a universal requirement for licensure exams in the United States.
He agreed that ethics are a crucial aspect of engineering licensing, noting that nearly 40 percent of all disciplinary actions carried out by the registration boards concern ethics, and not engineering competence. Entry‐level engineers therefore need to have been given a strong base in ethical behavior as part of their BS degree.
He affirmed the importance of lifelong learning, because most jurisdictions require engineers to engage in continuing professional education for license renewal. And being able to communicate and function on teams is another critical skill particularly for entry‐level engineers, as nearly all their assignments will involve working with a number of different people.