Don’t Lower the Bar: Remarks at NAE workshop on ABET Criteria Changes

by Donna Riley

I was a founding faculty member of the engineering program at Smith College and was centrally involved in designing the assessment processes for our initial accreditation. I attended ABET trainings and ABET assessment symposia, presenting our progress and learning from others. Founded just as EC 2000 was coming online, we were passionate about building a program that achieved those outcomes, not because ABET required them, but because we believed the profession needs the Engineer of 2020 – broadly educated professionals with integrated sociotechnical skills.

EC 2000 reflects shared values across industry, academia, government, and the broader community. But unfortunately, today’s proposed changes, while purporting to simplify the process, do not actually change the process at all, but rather lower the bar for what we expect engineering professionals to be and to do. I am here to humbly request that we don’t lower the bar. I’m not expecting ABET to lay out an aspirational but unachievable ideal of excellence; rather I am deeply concerned that the proposed changes inexplicably weaken or eliminate many of the professional competencies industry clearly values. The result of this will surely be a deprofessionalization of engineers, a loss in stature for the profession, and a shrinking of the scope of engineers’ responsibilities in the workplace and in society.

The changes gut educational breadth for engineers. In 1956, the ECPD, ABET’s predecessor, responded to a raft of reports – Mann in 1918, Wickenden in 1930, two Hammond reports in the 1940s, and the Grinter Report in 1955 – all of which called for broad education of engineers – by requiring one year of math and science fundamentals, one year of humanities and social sciences, and one and a half years of engineering content. EC 2000 kept the time requirements for math, science, and engineering, but did away with the time requirement for humanities and social sciences (H&SS) – replacing it with outcomes that drew on H&SS content and one outcome explicitly requiring “the broad education necessary” to understand social contexts of engineering. Additionally, EC2000 placed language in criterion 5 that “adequate attention and time” must be given to general education.

The new changes remove the broad education language from criterion 3, and – in an insult to our H&SS colleagues — remove the phrase “adequate attention and time” in criterion 5. “Broad education” is now characterized as merely a “component” of a technical education, when it should be the other way around – an engineering major should be part of a broad education of a whole human being. This drops the floor on educational breadth and sets engineering education back at least 60 years.

A thru K does not neatly map onto 1-7, as ABET representatives have argued.

The removal of health and safety from criterion 3 may result in engineers defaulting on our first ethical duty. While retaining the ethics outcome may ensure that engineers still know they must “hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” demoting health and safety to the preamble means there is no assurance that engineers will have any measurable abilities to enact protections of the public’s health and safety, rendering the paramountcy clause meaningless.

Contemporary issues have been deleted (and I’m not buying the Prego spaghetti sauce argument here – it’s NOT in there!), and this sends the message they are unimportant. As if engineers have no need to understand global climate change, or the VW diesel cheat, or the water crisis in Flint. This too undermines the ability of engineers to act ethically and as professionals.

The word “multidisciplinary” is removed entirely from the document. ABET no longer values engineers’ abilities to work with people of different backgrounds, setting them back in a competitive global workforce. Engineers will be ill equipped to work on any complex systems, from electric power grids to transportation.  Narrow minded engineering faculty whine it is “too hard” to find students outside of their single engineering discipline, as if that building across the campus green were as far away as the moon or something. Now ABET says, OK, we’ll lower the bar…. But what if the folks at Northrup Grumman had said the moon was just too far? This is not the engineering spirit. We need to do the things that matter, even when they are hard.

Lifelong learning is omitted and apparently replaced with information literacy. These are not even close to the same thing. Information literacy is vitally important, and it is necessary for lifelong learning, but it is not sufficient. No longer will we expect engineers to think critically, act reflectively, or build intellectual power across disciplines. No longer do we need to instill in engineers a passion and love for learning that will ensure active citizenship throughout their lifetimes.

Many of these omissions are related—contemporary issues establish relevance, producing passion to learn. Multidisciplinarity and educational breadth develop intellectual power and critical thinking. One needs to continue learning – not just acquiring information – in order to be an effective engineer throughout one’s life. We can and do assess these things – read the literature in engineering education research. Don’t lower the bar on engineers as thinking citizens.

Professional ethics is diluted in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink outcome where ethics is conflated with measures of global competencies, economic evaluations, environmental assessments, and societal-level analysis. I’m a huge advocate of teaching ethics in context, but this will only confuse engineering faculty further as to what ethics is. It is crucial that we distinguish among the very different skill sets involved in these separate professional competencies. The phrasing of this outcome implies that engineers need only consider social impacts when making informed judgments about ethics, again limiting the scope and range of professional action. Now more than ever we need explicit and meaningful education in ethics and professional responsibility as an unadulterated learning outcome.

The use of the narrow word “impact” — also a problem in EC 2000 — evokes a linear technological determinism in which engineers act in an apolitical, asocial, ahistorical setting, as if problems are pre-defined in a vacuum. But the reality is that engineering projects emerge from and within social contexts that must first be understood if any meaningful attention is to be directed to impacts. Engineering is already social, political, global, and so on.

But the words political and social have been removed! There is more shrinkage of engineers’ purview as “political” becomes “policy” and “social” becomes “societal.” Political is the broader term, encompassing processes beyond policy – including critical contexts that give rise to engineering projects locally and globally, and carry through to artifacts — essential professional capacities, because like it or not, engineering is a political activity.

Narrowing the scope to “societal contexts” means that engineers now need not bother to understand the myriad smaller arrangements of people as they intersect with engineering practice: the specific context of a group of clients or users, a particular cultural group affected by a project, the organizations with which a project is developed, or the social constructs and cultural phenomena shaping what is prioritized and why in any of these settings.

The word sustainability has been removed and “environmental” presumably left to cover for it. But there are multiple dimensions of sustainability (e.g., the classically identified “three pillars” are economic, environmental, and social), and the term has gained traction because it puts the tensions among competing forces into play. To speak only of environmental sustainability again reduces the engineering professional’s required scope of analysis and areas of competency. It again lowers the bar.

The relegation of manufacturability to the preamble appears a direct slight to the current presidential administration; to devalue these specific abilities just as they are in high demand seems out of touch at best.

All these proposed changes do not simplify the process. My colleague Alan Cheville did a word count – the new criterion 3 is only 4 words shorter than with EC 2000. Now outcomes are lumped together, making them more difficult to measure.  Any assessment textbook will tell you this is a “worst practice” – and unfortunately ABET looks like it doesn’t know the first thing about assessment. University of Pittsburgh Dean Jerry Holder’s comments with input from some of the foremost experts on assessment in engineering education should give us pause.

Innovation is not encouraged through these outcomes. ABET would need to change process, not outcomes, if it really wants to see innovation. ABET’s own record shows that programs do the bare minimum to get accredited. Organizational research predicts this will continue because you get exactly what you assess – not more and not less. This is why we must assess what we value. We must assess those things that make engineering a profession. Engineering programs will lower the bar and omit the values being eliminated with these changes. They won’t do these things anyway – to pretend otherwise is against the evidence. We need clear standards set through our accreditation board.

ABET’s process has been entirely opaque. How could I have been serving as Program Director for Engineering Education at NSF from March 2013-August 2016, speaking with literally hundreds of engineering educators, attending dozens of events here in DC, many with ABET staff where outcomes were discussed – and not hear word one about the changes until the end of June last year?

How could diversity and inclusion, raised time and again over the past several decades, be omitted once again from criteria revisions without explanation? I recognize the importance of adding project management, and my dissertation was on risk and uncertainty analysis – but surely diversity and inclusion are at least that important.

This speaks to problems in the ABET process, as specific language has been proposed, not only in the 1990s when EC 2000 was discussed, but also in 2015. For example, the ASEE Liberal Education/Engineering and Society (LEES) Division letter suggested adding “the ability to meaningfully include diverse groups in engineering practice. This ability includes the incorporation of ideas from all groups in defining engineering challenges, the participation of all groups in engineering practice, and equitably addressing impacts of engineering on all groups.” The ASEE Diversity Committee suggested “an ability to cultivate and work effectively in a diverse, inclusive environment.” Yet ABET has not offered a response explaining why these suggestions were not adopted in any form.

When Kitty Didion at NAE approached me at NSF about her idea for this event, it was to be a discussion beyond the current crisis, determining what we can do to improve communication and process over the long haul. I hope this can still be part of the conversation. 

For now, I implore our community: don’t lower the bar!

ABET’s Personal Impact

by Julia Thompson

I am writing this post today to share how ABET criteria influenced me as a person, explain the changes that are happening in ABET, and provide some suggestions on how ABET can improve the accreditation criteria. It is my hope that the reader will not only understand why the suggested changes to ABET can negatively impact engineering, but also gain some insight about positive ways to move forward.

Personal Story

It may seem a bit peculiar that an education policy is so impactful to a person’s life, but that has been the case in mine. As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in Chemical Engineering, I came to the realization that my education was almost entirely focused on technical and scientific knowledge and lacked the humanities, social sciences and ethics. As a consequence, students leaving this program lacked a level of self-awareness that my non-engineering peers had; graduating engineering students were largely ignorant of many aspects of society. I wrote a letter to my department about my concerns and researched the accreditation requirements for engineering programs. It gave me a sense of hope and comfort to know that even though my school did not meet the following criteria, the accreditation body (ABET), expected students to attain:

d) an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams
f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
h) the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a
global, economic, environmental, and societal context
j) a knowledge of contemporary issues

To me, these criteria demonstrated that ABET recognized the need for these pivotal skills to be professionals and citizens of the world. Today technology influences and shapes our environment and our society in numerous different ways. From smart phones to water filters, cook stoves to cars, and chemical leaks to weapons, the world is constantly being molded and recreated by technologies in ways that impact our economic system, ecosystem, and our lives.

The lack of focus, inclusion, appreciation of and even the feeling of superiority towards anything non-technical within my engineering program is what motivated me to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering education. I want to live in a world where the people who build the future understand contemporary issues and receive a broad education to appreciate how engineering impacts a complex world.

(You can find out more of my journey here)

ABET Changes

The changes ABET has created directly alter the four criteria mentioned above. ABET had established a task force that concluded that “some of the (a)-(k) components were interdependent, broad and vague in scope, or impossible to measure,” so they made significant changes to the criteria. However, in the process I (and others) see these changes watering down expectations of students’ professional and intellectual development. For example, the proposed criteria remove the need to work on multi-disciplinary teams and attain knowledge of contemporary issues (as seen in points d & j above). They combine professional ethics and social responsibility (f & h) into the following single criterion:

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.

There are many problems with these proposed changes, and I will address three of them.

First, this new criterion appears to lower the developmental levels of social awareness and ethical reasoning required in the graduating engineer.  By using the words “recognize” and “consider,” the new criterion is written such that memorizing specific information—such as engineering codes of ethics and key social and environmental factors—while working on engineering problems would provide enough confirmation that the students have met this outcome. This evidence would fall within the lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy, “knowledge.” The previous wording “understand,” is only slightly better than memorizing, but instead of moving towards critically analyzing and evaluating, this new criterion simply demonstrates that students are able to memorize facts.

The second issue is that these changes push forward a technocratic ideology. By eliminating multi-disciplinary teaming, the “broad education” corresponding to global/economic/environmental/social context, and the knowledge of contemporary issues, these changes seem to imply that knowledge is only valuable from within the context of engineering. The value of looking at engineering through the lenses of other disciplines, such as anthropology or environmental science, or through the lens of “contemporary issues,” is dismissed. These changes appear to ignore the fact that professional engineers are almost always engaged with contemporary issues and are required to interact with non-engineers. I see these criteria as vital components of student outcomes, and should not be removed from the ABET criteria.

Finally, these changes may limit the interest of engineering from students who are driven by the desire to “make a difference” in social and environmental contexts. While there are men and women who fall in this group, I contend that the changes disproportionally impact women and minorities, since research shows that these groups are more motivated by the social and environmental implications of their work. Thus, it is possible that weakening these criteria will reduce the desire for women and minority students to enter engineering.


The current changes ABET is proposing run counter to research and numerous reports on what the future of engineering needs. I believe that engineering curricula should foster deep intellectual thought and prepare engineers to work with ambiguity, and not just a rote memorization of facts. To this end, I argue that the criteria should aim to recognize the importance of working with non-engineers and appreciate differing views. They should be more accessible to women and under-represented minority students by placing more emphasis on the socially relevant context of the content.

There are plenty of studies and reports written about the intellectual development of engineering students, the conditions needed for deep learning and inclusive classrooms, and the attributes and skills needed in the future engineer. I suggest that ABET engage with the engineering education community, study the research literature, and ground the accreditation requirements in educational theory. After doing so, ABET should then provide research-based evidence for the inclusion of the specific accreditation requirements.

Additionally, I suggest training and guidance for engineering programs and evaluators on the educational rationalization, the implementation, and assessment of the accreditation criteria. This training should also provide support for instructors who are integrating new pedagogical approaches and who need direction and assistance.

I know that my own education in engineering was limited by the lack of context and breadth. I think ABET is at a crossroads, and should reverse the proposed changes by working with the engineering education community to establish requirements that are grounded in educational theory. ABET can change the direction of engineering education, and engineers can be better prepared to engage the world as professionals and as citizens.

Second Round of Public Comment OPEN

ABET has announced the opening of a 7 month public comment period on their proposed changes.

See their news release.

The deadline is June 15, 2016, which is before the next ASEE annual meeting.

Here is the link to submit comments.

Here is the link to the proposed revisions, in which a-k learning outcomes become 1-7:

Criterion 3. Student Outcomes

The program must have documented student outcomes that prepare graduates to attain the program educational objectives. Student outcomes are outcomes (a) through (k) plus any additional outcomes that may be articulated by the program.

(a) an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering

(b) an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data

(c) an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability

(d) an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams

(e) an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems 27 2016-2017 Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs – Proposed Changes

(f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility

(g) an ability to communicate effectively

(h) the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context

(i) a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning

(j) a knowledge of contemporary issues

(k) an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.

The program must have documented student outcomes. Attainment of these outcomes prepares graduates to enter the professional practice of engineering. Student outcomes are outcomes (1) through (7) plus any additional outcomes that may be articulated by the program.

1. An ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems by applying principles of engineering, science, and mathematics.

2. An ability to apply both analysis and synthesis in the engineering design process, resulting in designs that meet desired needs.

3. An ability to develop and conduct appropriate experimentation, analyze and interpret data, and use engineering judgment to draw conclusions.

4. An ability to communicate effectively with a range of audiences.

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.

6. An ability to recognize the ongoing need for additional knowledge and locate, evaluate, integrate, and apply this knowledge appropriately.

7. An ability to function effectively on teams that establish goals, plan tasks, meet deadlines, and analyze risk and uncertainty.


Against Axing Breadth to Exalt the Technical

ABET, the engineering accreditation body, has been covertly altering its Criteria 3 and 5, including student learning outcomes (“a-k”), contradicting and ignoring the recommendations from distinguished leaders, researchers, and teachers of engineering. These modifications, grounded in technocratic ideology, reverse and undermine the requirements for students’ social, environmental and ethical competencies. We must not produce flat, uncaring, and insular engineers with undeveloped professional skills and an inability to engage contemporary tribulations. Engineers educated in the absence of an understanding about the context and impact of their work, or the knowledge of the diverse ways of being and thinking that exist in the world, will only ever design for people like them. This has been going on for centuries, leading to the lack of ecologically just systems in place today and causing real harm in the lives of individuals and communities.

Moreover, despite an outpouring of concern from the engineering education community last June when ABET’s plans finally became known to us, ABET has continued to move the new criteria forward rapidly through two votes of its leadership that took place in July and in October 2015. A final vote of ABET leadership in October 2016 will enact the changes and further shrink the role of the engineer to that of a technical lackey.

WHEREAS a century of blue ribbon reports have called for the broad education of engineers (e.g. Mann, Wickenden, Grinter, Engineer of 2020, Educating the Engineer of 2020, TUEE);

WHEREAS the global community is in widespread agreement that engineers need a broad education, as evidenced by the Washington Accord, the Sydney Accord, the Dublin Accord and the Bologna Process, among other agreements;

WHEREAS the Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC 2000) were brought online after a decade-long process of careful deliberation and involvement of many different stakeholder groups;

WHEREAS the changes reversing EC 2000 were not made with input from a diverse range of stakeholders;

WHEREAS ABET has apparently deleted from its website documents communicating the proposed changes, making it difficult to alert and include the community;

WHEREAS ABET has reportedly altered the proposed new criteria, but has not released the new draft to the wider stakeholder community for examination, further obfuscating and scuttling the comment process;

WHEREAS the proposed changes in both versions inexplicably weaken or eliminate many of the professional skills industry clearly values:

  • professional and ethical responsibility
  • broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions
  • global context
  • societal context
  • economic context
  • environmental context
  • contemporary issues
  • working across disciplines
  • lifelong learning
  • design for manufacturability, sustainability, safety, and more;

WHEREAS ABET’s own commissioned study conducted by Lisa Lattuca et al. found that engineering students educated under EC2000 were better prepared for professional careers because of the emphasis on professional skills, and this is recognized on the ABET website;

WHEREAS the changes reversing EC2000 are based on an erroneous assumption that professional skills are difficult to assess;

WHEREAS ABET’s own Gloria Rogers held year after year of workshops teaching the community to assess all EC 2000 outcomes (commonly referred to as a-k), belying the claim that professional skill outcomes are difficult to assess;

WHEREAS ABET seeks to justify these changes by claiming the new outcomes are easier to assess, when in point of fact they make rookie mistakes in assessment, such as lumping multiple different skills into a single outcome;

WHEREAS ABET representatives have repeatedly articulated a Prego defense (claiming “it’s in there”), not realizing that disappearing “global, economic, environmental, and societal context” first as “design under multiple constraints,” then in the most recent version subordinating it to the limited consideration of ethical impacts, reveals that they do not understand the meaning or value of “a broad education” and how this might differ from consideration of context only within specific narrow acts of engineering practice;

WHEREAS we assess what we value; moreover, organizational research and experience has shown time and again that you will also exactly get what you measure (and reward). Organizations and in this case engineering colleges will evolve to deliver on the specific measures of success and reward articulated in student learning outcomes. The assumption that in this process the ‘other stuff’ (i.e. broader outcomes) will somehow remain important, ‘rub off’ on students, etc. is woefully naive;

WHEREAS ABET representatives have pointed to their lofty preamble language as a vehicle for producing broadly educated engineers with multicultural competencies, yet refuse to put their money where their mouth is by including educational breadth as a student outcome, or by including critical professional skills such as lifelong learning or negotiating difference, power, and privilege as student outcomes upon which programs will ultimately be assessed and curricula designed;

WHEREAS the crises of professional ethics among engineers at Volkswagen AG, the US Newmont Mining Corporation, and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality are only three of the latest in a long series of crises in which engineers blatantly disregard the health, safety, and welfare of the public, underscoring the need for explicit and meaningful education in ethics and professional responsibility as an unadulterated learning outcome;

WHEREAS the originally proposed changes deprofessionalized engineers, substituting personal morality via a demonstration of  “principles;”

WHEREAS the most recently proposed changes now dilute professional ethics in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink outcome where ethics gets conflated with measures of intercultural competencies, economic evaluations, environmental assessments, and social analysis, revealing that ABET leadership is incapable of distinguishing among the very different skill sets involved in these separate professional competencies;

WHEREAS 346 engineering educators, including 99 deans and associate deans, wrote to express their concerns that the time for the first comment period (June 2014- June 2015) be extended and the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) vote be postponed past July 2015;

WHEREAS the Liberal Education/Engineering & Society (LEES) division of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) pleaded with the EAC not to gut the learning outcomes supporting the need to be broadly educated — specifically the abilities to understand professional responsibility, understand the historical and contemporary social contexts of their work, engage across disciplines in teamwork, design for a variety of specific objectives and constraints, engage in lifelong learning, and meaningfully incorporate ideas from all groups in defining engineering challenges, meaningfully engage the participation of all groups in engineering practice, and equitably address impacts of engineering on all groups;

WHEREAS the Ethics division of ASEE concurred with the LEES division;

WHEREAS the Technological and Engineering Literacy and Philosophy of Engineering (TELPhE) Division of ASEE further registered its concern that the proposed changes could “undermine the historical conception of engineering as a profession;”

WHEREAS the Diversity Committee of ASEE also registered its concern that “many critical core values and skills essential to the engineering profession are not expressed in the proposed outcomes;”

WHEREAS it is unclear if any of these comments were even shared with members of the EAC prior to their vote in July, or with the members of the ABET Board prior to their vote in October (most links to comments are unavailable because ABET’s comment process has been less than transparent) ;

BE IT RESOLVED We are Against Axing Breadth to Exalt the Technical; We are Against Adhering to Broken Engineering Teaching.

WE DEMAND immediately a transparent process coordinated directly by ABET, without passing the buck and the blame to its 35 member professional societies, who have proven over the EAC comment period (June 2014-June 2015) to be extraordinarily ill-equipped to facilitate comment processes that reach their constituencies;

WE DEMAND that a transparent, multi-stakeholder process be conducted over 24 to 36 months, as it is blaringly apparent that the less than 12 months remaining for the second round of comments (on revised outcomes yet to be made public) is insufficient time for the community to digest, discuss, and respond to the proposed changes, which are sweeping;

WE DEMAND that no action be taken until a competent study of the global, societal, economic, ethical, multicultural and environmental contexts and implications of these changes has been made. The irony is not lost on us that no such study has been made to date, yet ABET marches forward with changes that decimate these critical competencies in engineering students;  

WE DEMAND reform in the structure of ABET’s governance, which is overwhelmingly dominated by white males, few if any of whom experienced EC2000 undergraduate engineering education and apparently devalue it.

WE INVITE others to sign this manifesto and/or join the effort by emailing, following us on twitter @againstABET, following our blog at, and following our facebook page at Against ABET. We welcome your ideas for blog contributions!

We are aware and deeply dismayed that there is a climate of fear preventing many from signing a statement such as this one or speaking out on social media; however, there is ultimately strength in transparency, and the initial comment phase brought forth hundreds of concerned stakeholders. We know we are not alone. The stakes are too high for our silence.

Caroline Baillie, Perth, Western Australia

Lisa Benson, Clemson, SC

Daniel Chen, Charlottesville, VA

Richard Day, Kingston, ON

Dianne DeTurris, San Luis Obispo, CA

Richard Goff, Blacksburg, VA

Andrew Katz, Blacksburg, VA

Cole Joslyn, West Lafayette, IN

Yanna Lambrinidou, Washington, DC

Richard Layton, Terre Haute, IN

Andrea Mazzurco, West Lafayette, IN

Lisa McNair, Blacksburg, VA

Dean Nieusma, Troy, NY

Marie Paretti, Blacksburg, VA

Alice Pawley, West Lafayette, IN

Donna Riley, Blacksburg, VA

Amy Slaton, Philadelphia, PA

Nicki Sochacka, Athens, GA

Julia Thompson, West Lafayette, IN

Jo Walther, Athens, GA