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!