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Watered-Down Gen Ed for Engineers?


What have long set U.S.-trained engineers apart from their global peers — at least in the minds of lots of employers — are their softer skills. While universities in many other countries focus almost entirely on technical mastery, American engineering programs also stress the development of additional competencies, such as critical thinking, writing and the ability to work across disciplines and in diverse settings.

And that hasn’t been an accident. For years, the major undergraduate and master’s-level engineering program accreditor, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET, has made these outcomes part of its standards. So proposed changes designed to streamline those standards are worrying some faculty members, who say they’ll inevitably narrow American engineers’ skills set — and therefore take away their competitive edge. But ABET argues that the changes will benefit the discipline over all, by making less opaque the process of assessing some of these outcomes and by encouraging innovation in teaching.

“Engineering is increasingly being done in a much more complex context and — I’m going to show my age here a bit — engineers can no longer afford to be the guys with pocket protectors and slide rules,” said Charles N. Haas, the L. D. Betz Professor of Environmental Engineering and chair of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at Drexel University, and an opponent of ABET’s changes. “They need to be able to interact with people from diverse communities and understand and meet their needs and communicate with different constituencies as much as possible.”

“U.S. engineers will be at a disadvantage if they don’t understand the global context of their work,” she said. “This is about being able to see the big picture, and in so many ways this is what this [debate] is all about.”

In the mid-1990s, amid high-profile calls for more well-rounded engineers who would remain competitive internationally, ABET released its Engineering Criteria 2000 accreditation standards. Arguably the most significant part of the document, Criterion 3 said all engineering programs had to demonstrate that their graduates could:

Arrow Apply knowledge of mathematics, science and engineering
Arrow Design and conduct experiments, and analyze and interpret data
Arrow Design a system, component or process to meet desired needs
Arrow Function on multidisciplinary teams
Arrow Identify, formulate and solve engineering problems
Arrow Understand professional and ethical responsibility
Arrow Communicate effectively
Arrow Understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context, due to a “broad education”
Arrow Recognize the need for and engage in lifelong learning
Arrow Grasp contemporary issues, based on background knowledge, and
Arrow Use the techniques, skills and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.

ABET’s Engineering Accreditation Commission says that individual programs may articulate additional outcomes, but that it is focusing on what is “necessary” to professional practice. For example, references to a “broad education,” “life-long learning,” knowledge of contemporary issues and professional responsibility are gone. One of the commission’s concerns, according to the presentation, is that programs aren’t adopting additional goals under the more lengthy A-K guidelines. And that’s stifling teaching innovation, it says. Moreover, “some outcomes have proven difficult to assess in a useful and repeatable manner.”

“What’s necessary for a strong engineering education is being profoundly weakened,” said Amy Slaton, a professor of history at Drexel who teaches many engineering students completing general education requirements, including in a course on technology in historical perspective. “The concern is this is a terrible time to do this, with the number of engineers increasing from India and China and [Brazil and Russia]. The thing that has made American-trained engineers stand out is that they can think critically and ethically and they can write.”

Slaton said the new standards don’t seem to support the “T-Shaped” worker — one with foundational technical skills and a broadly educated mind — businesses say they want.

Riley said she wondered how a student who hadn’t been trained in global competencies and contemporary issues, for example, might approach building an electrical grid in another country, in which so many cultural factors are at play — what drives usage, when is peak demand, what happens if it goes out?

ABET was unable to make anyone available to immediately comment on the draft changes. But a spokeswoman stressed that they are just a draft, reflecting discussions that have been underway since 2009. They’ll be open to additional comment for a year after ABET further considers the changes starting this summer.