q & a
conversation with george peterson

"An  accurate assessment of the impact of EC 2000 will result from [a] longitudinal  analysis taken over a number of years."

Photograph by Linda CreightonEngineering Criteria 2000, the new accreditation guidelines for technical degree-granting universities developed by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, is a much-discussed topic in the education community. Prism recently caught up with George Peterson, ABET's executive director, to find out how things are going.

Prism: In what ways are schools doing the best job, and where are they having problems?
George Peterson: The schools that are doing the best job are the ones where the faculty is making a serious commitment to quality improvement. The more successful ones also have a faculty champion who works to assure that plans  are carried forward on schedule.It appears that implementation of continuous quality improvement is easier at the course level than at the program level. Schools are collecting data but not all of it is useful. Surveys appear to be the major assessment tool. Assessment processes, for the most part, are in place, but it is too early to tell if the processes--carried through a complete cycle--would demonstrate that improvement had taken place as a result of the feedback. In the long term, sustaining the quality improvement process will be important for continued success.

Prism: How would you change EC 2000 if you had the chance to do it over?
Peterson: The ABET Regional Faculty Workshops are proving to be very useful  for both the faculty and ABET. These workshops are designed for faculty members--not deans or department heads--who have the ultimate responsibility for the curriculum. The interaction between these faculty and the ABET workshop leaders has done much to de-mystify ABET's new approach. The interaction between educators from different schools as well as different disciplines has resulted in the sharing of best practices, and networking among faculty. It would have been useful to introduce the workshops earlier.

Prism: Are any more changes in store?
Peterson: The initial version of EC 2000 is not perfect. ABET's experience over the next few years will lead to improvements in the evaluation processes.  But more importantly, ABET must continually ensure that the criteria are relevant and valid indicators of the attributes of engineering graduates. This requires a comprehensive longitudinal study of the impact of EC 2000. In other words, in 10 to 15 years ABET should be prepared to answer the question, "What impact did EC 2000 have on the performance of engineering graduates in the workforce?"

Prism: Has the success rate declined or improved under EC 2000?
Peterson: As next year will be the first year of full implementation of  EC 2000, measures such as the percentages of Next General Reviews, Interim Visits, Interim Reports, and Not to Accredit actions are not good indicators for comparing  EC 2000 to the old criteria. An accurate assessment of the impact of EC 2000 will result from the longitudinal analysis taken over a number of years.

Prism: How will distance learning be evaluated from an accreditation standpoint?
Peterson: EC 2000 places emphasis on outcomes; thus, it is expected that each graduate will achieve the program outcomes independent of the delivery method. One of the unique features of an educational program in a discipline  such as engineering is the live, hands-on laboratory and design experience.If a distance education delivery mechanism is asynchronous and does not include this laboratory experience, it raises questions. What are the expected outcomes of these experiences in the curriculum? Can we describe (define) the attributes of engineering graduates  that are developed or enhanced by a hands-on laboratory experience? Could these attributes also be developed or enhanced through a program offered by distance education? Which raises the final question, how do accrediting agencies assess a distance education program to determine if the graduate has acquired the knowledge and skills sufficient to begin professional practice? ABET, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is examining how the objectives of laboratory experience in traditional programs might be achieved in distance education programs.

Prism: Engineering education seems to be trying to squeeze more and more content into the same amount of time. What things might have to come out of the curriculum?
Peterson: Perhaps an unintended consequence of EC 2000 is that it is causing educators to look carefully at their engineering program, course by course. We have anecdotal evidence that redundancies are being removed, but likewise, weaknesses have been discovered and corrected. EC 2000 encourages innovation and creativity with the assurances that well-planned  experimentation will not jeopardize accreditation. Cutting something out of the curriculum is not the issue, but rather: Am I achieving my stated objectives? Are there more creative ways than the traditional "chalk and talk" to deliver  the program? Do we understand how students learn? And what instructional methods  best convey content? But the short answer is, the change process is not far enough along to draw sweeping conclusions other than anecdotal evidence that schools of all sizes are beginning  to explore new mixtures of curricular topics.