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.
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.
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.