Successful engineering schools do more than simply provide students with the technical tools they will need in their careers. The best engineers are well rounded, with an understanding of the broader societal context in which their engineering solutions will operate and an ability to work with all sorts of people, including those from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds. How well the proposed criteria address these sorts of nontechnical issues was a major theme of the forum discussions.
Several participants suggested that the new criteria may lead to a weakening of what engineers are expected to be able to do. As Donna Riley (Virginia Tech) put it, the proposed changes could lower expectations for engineering professionals, leading to a deprofessionalization of engineers, a loss in stature for the profession, and possibly a reduction of the scope of engineers’ responsibilities in the workplace and in society.
Forum participants specifically considered the change in the criteria from “general education” to “broad education,” omission of the term “multidisciplinary,” and how well the proposed criteria would encourage diversity in engineering schools.
Several speakers expressed concern about part (c) in the proposed Criterion 5, which specifies that an engineering curriculum must have “a broad education component that includes humanities and social sciences, complements the technical content of the curriculum, and is consistent with the program educational objectives.” In particular, comments focused on the change in wording from “general education” in the current ABET criteria to “broad education” in the proposed criteria, and on the specification of humanities and social sciences as broad subject areas in which engineering students should take courses.
Patricia Daniels (University of Washington) noted that there have been reports of some engineering programs reducing their general education requirements in the face of requests from state legislatures to reduce the number of overall credits in engineering degrees. Changing the criteria to specify courses in the humanities and social sciences might lead some engineering programs to add courses instead.
According to Col. Barry Shoop (West Point), the proposed change from a general education component to a broad educational component that includes humanities and social sciences has caused some in the engineering education community to worry about unintended consequences for engineering programs. One area of concern is variability in how institutions define humanities and social sciences. For instance, universities with a college of humanities and/or social sciences might restrict the definition of courses in these areas to those taught by the college. Such a restriction would not necessarily reflect the sorts of courses that engineering majors should take to get the broad education that will help them understand the world in which they will be designing.
Riley provided a historical overview of what engineering students have been expected to study beyond math, the physical sciences, and engineering. For nearly a century reports called for the broad education of engineers, and before the current ABET standards were in place engineering students were expected to have one year’s worth of courses in the humanities and social sciences. EC2000 did away with the time requirements for courses in these areas and replaced them with outcomes that drew instead on content from the humanities and social sciences, while explicitly requiring the “broad education” necessary to understand the social context of engineering.
EC2000 also specified in Criterion 5 that adequate attention and time must be given to “general education.” The proposed changes remove the language concerning a “broad education” from Criterion 3 and the phrase “adequate attention and time” from Criterion 5, with the result that “broad education” is characterized in the new criteria as simply a component of a technical education.
The result of these changes, Riley said, would be to remove the requirements that help engineers understand the social context in which they are designing. Engineering, she argued, should be defined in such a way that engineers understand their role in solving extreme poverty, for example, but they cannot be effective in that role if they do not have an understanding of issues such as social inequality. The stakes are high and, as written, the new criteria leave out the social context that engineers must understand in order to work on societal problems.
Jon Kuhl (University of Iowa), a member of the Web audience, asked about the rationale for the more restrictive definition of the general education component of Criterion 5, specifically the requirement that this component include work in the humanities and social sciences. His institution, he said, uses designations such as communication and culture, society, and the arts.
Diane Rover (Iowa State University), a member of the executive committee of ABET’s Engineering Accreditation Commission, responded that the Criteria Committee appreciates feedback on the proposed changes. Regarding the change from “general education” to “broad education,” she said, “That is…definitely going to be refined, and likely [without]…quite such specific words. There was no intent to overspecify that.”
One omission from the new criteria that attracted attention from several participants was the word “multidisciplinary.” Simon Pitts (Northeastern University), a member of the Web audience, observed that a key disconnect between students’ experiences at universities and what they encounter in the engineering workplace is that the vast majority of engineering practice today is done in multidisciplinary teams, whereas engineering students get relatively little experience working in such teams. Omission of the word “multidisciplinary” in the new criteria might be a retrograde step in terms of preparing students for their careers.
Riley also questioned the omission of “multidisciplinary” from the proposed criteria: It sends the signal that ABET no longer values an engineer’s ability to work with people of different backgrounds, which could eventually result in engineers who are ill equipped to work on complex systems, such as electric power or transportation.
Frank Flores (Northrop Grumman Aerospace) agreed that introduction to multidisciplinary teams is critical to engineering education—and in terms of expertise not just in different engineering disciplines but also in nonengineering fields.
Karan Watson (Texas A&M University), a past president of ABET, offered an explanation for the decision to remove “multidisciplinary” from the proposed new criteria. “One of the problems with ‘multidisciplinary’ is you want people to have a discipline before you bring them on,” she said, but many engineering undergraduates do not develop much strength in a discipline until the later stages of their education. Many engineering programs have therefore ended up defining “multidisciplinary” for the purpose of their ABET evaluations in ways that are not truly multidisciplinary in the way that most working engineers think of the word. For example, a school might define a multidisciplinary team as having one person working on radiofrequency signals, another working on the controls, a third working on the communications, and so on. There is great variation in how different schools define the term “multidisciplinary.”
It would be a positive step to get people talking about what “multidisciplinary” should mean in terms of satisfying the ABET criteria, Watson said, “but I think that would be a significant change for many schools if you defined it as meaning having to work with people who are getting different degrees, even outside of engineering, because that is not necessarily a common definition of multidisciplinary teams right now in the criteria.”
Rover agreed with Watson’s explanation. Many schools have operational definitions of “multidisciplinary” that do not require students to work with students from different majors. Program evaluators have traditionally found such definitions to be acceptable, which is one of the reasons that “multidisciplinary” does not appear in the proposed criteria.
A portion of the forum discussion concerned diversity in the engineering profession and how to encourage it. As Riley noted, although diversity is mentioned in the new ABET document, which says that students should be “able to participate in diverse multicultural workplaces,” there are no student outcomes in Criterion 3 that directly address diversity.
Darryll Pines (University of Maryland, College Park) reported that studies have shown that diversity—not just racial and ethnic diversity, but all types—enhances product development and helps lives in general, and truly diverse teams lead to greater innovation. And he noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers has a 5‐year strategic plan for increasing diversity in the engineering profession. He stressed the importance of including diversity in the student outcomes of Criterion 3.
Several forum participants echoed Pines’ comments that diversity should be understood as more than racial, ethnic, and gender diversity.
Watson pointed out that diversity can mean different things in different situations. Diversity in the United States is not necessarily the same as diversity in another country, she said, offering as an example the Texas A&M University
campus in Qatar, where 42 percent of the engineering students are women: gender diversity is not as pressing an issue there as it is on many US campuses. Since ABET has a global presence, with accredited engineering programs around the world, Watson said, any diversity criteria must take into account the fact that diversity needs may vary significantly from place to place.
Flores added that increasing diversity will require the development of more inclusive environments that are welcoming to and supportive of all engineers regardless of their race, ethnicity, cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or beliefs.
Diane Matt (WEPAN) seconded this point. A number of engineering groups have emphasized the importance of fostering inclusiveness, yet there is nothing in the proposed ABET criteria about such inclusiveness. “I do not see anything in Criteria 3 and 5 that addresses recruitment, nurturing, and welcoming for underrepresented groups,” she said. She hears from people on various campuses that engineering college cultures are rarely inclusive, and indeed that they are often quite unwelcoming to anyone who is not a straight white male. “It is time to change that.”
In particular, Matt continued, diversity and inclusion are crucial to the success of companies in today’s global marketplace. She cited a 2011 Forbes article on the results of interviews with 300 senior‐level executives from top companies around the world: they reported that a diverse, inclusive workforce is a critical element in attracting and retaining top talent. She added that, while companies located in some homogeneous places may find it difficult to assemble a truly diverse workforce, it is always possible to create inclusiveness.
Norman Fortenberry (ASEE) articulated a consistent theme throughout the discussion of the specific wording of the proposed revisions, noting two different approaches to understanding the value of the revisions. One questioned what the minimum requirements for an engineer are or ought to be, and then tried to determine whether the revisions achieve that minimum. The other approach questioned whether accreditation should be about the minimum or baseline, or whether it is aspirational. Trying to bridge these two different approaches might be a difficult but critical challenge.
Watson supported the notion that determining baseline expectations for accredited programs should be a primary consideration for ABET. In response to the concern that ABET criteria fall short because they do not address specific issues sufficiently, she expressed concern that ABET’s role was misunderstood: the organization sets criteria for accreditation, not for total excellence. It is a strength of the ABET approach that schools are allowed to specify their own vision of excellence for their engineering programs.
Riley countered that there is no point in “setting the bar low” and that the purpose of the NAE forum was to identify areas and details that are missing from the proposed criteria. Things that are important for beginning engineers to know can be specified in the ABET criteria without placing too heavy a load on universities, she argued.