PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
Last Word
Criteria 2000-For Better or Worse

by Stephen W. Director

When I began my career as an engineering educator, the last thing I cared about, or perhaps was even aware of, was accreditation. But as I moved from faculty member, to department chair and then dean, I became increasingly aware of its importance and the role it plays in not only ensuring that engineering programs meet a set of minimum standaCriteria 2000-For Better or Worserds, but also in either encouraging or thwarting the development of engineering curricula.

Prior to the advent of "Criteria 2000," accreditation seemed to me mostly to be a chore of putting together massive documents with the goal of demonstrating that the existing curricula met a set of fairly well-defined guidelines. The actual accreditation visit focused primarily on convincing the evaluators to count the beans your way.  And once the visit was complete, accreditation was forgotten until the next visit. Many faculty members viewed accreditation at best to be only a minor nuisance.  That is, until they wanted to undertake a major curriculum change and then it became the enemy because strict adherence to the criteria left little room for true reform.  I recognize that this may be an overstatement, but having undertaken a major curriculum change under the previous accreditation guidelines, that is the way it felt to me. With Criteria 2000, things are supposed to be different. But are they? Perhaps, but not necessarily in the way we had originally anticipated.

The world continues to change rapidly, due in large measure to the efforts of engineers. So what we teach, and how we teach it, must continue to change as well. I believe, therefore, that an accreditation process ought not to merely tolerate curricula change, but in fact welcome it. Criteria 2000 is a major step in the right direction. But whereas "accreditation" used to be synonymous with "bean counting," it might now become synonymous with "assessment." While assessment may be key in determining if an existing curriculum is achieving a set of stated objectives by itself, it falls far short of encouraging curricula innovation, as it is more suited to suggesting improvement rather than sweeping changes.

For assessment to be effective in improving a curriculum, it needs to be integrated into the curriculum development process. Unfortunately though, it appears to me that the assessment process itself has become the focal point of accreditation visits. Perhaps this preoccupation with assessment is due to it's being a new and unfamiliar activity. Or, perhaps this preoccupation with assessment exists because ABET evaluators find it easier to evaluate the assessment process, as opposed to evaluating the overall curriculum development and improvement process. In either case, maybe as we become more comfortable with assessment, the emphasis will change toward using it as a tool for curriculum improvement rather than as an end in itself.

Colleges of engineering are in enviable positions today because technological development has been and will continue to be the source of great economic growth and an improved quality of life. Our engineering graduates are in high demand, not only by traditional technology-based companies, but also by financial institutions, service industries, consulting companies, and many others. The engineering degree continues to be a ticket to upward mobility, both socially and economically. For these reasons, engineering enrollments ought to be on the increase. However, data suggest that nationwide this is not the case, and certainly not for women and underrepresented minorities. Part of the reason is the well- documented lack of understanding that the public has of engineering. It may also have to do with the engineering curricula itself. If so, Criteria 2000 will play a role in addressing this issue.

To many prospective students, engineering programs still look very narrowly focused and feel like boot camp. Some programs have attempted to change this by increasing flexibility and being more realistic about what should be included in a four-year engineering degree program. But Criteria 2000 has the potential to undermine these efforts. While the move away from prescriptive guidelines for content is admirable, and allows for inclusion of material on social awareness, ethics, effective communications, etc., it may also lead to the reduction, or even elimination of the nontechnical component of engineering curricula to make room for more technical material. But the engineering curriculum continues to need a significant humanities and social science component, in order to prepare graduates for our increasingly global society.

The engineering degree holds the promise of becoming the "liberal arts degree" of the 21st century. This is appropriate given the increasing role technology plays in our every day lives. Hopefully, if we are careful, Criteria 2000 will allow this promise to be realized.

    Stephen W. Director is the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, which went through the accreditation process last year.

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