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 againstABET@gmail.com, following us on twitter @againstABET, following our blog at againstABET.org, 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

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