PRISM Magazine - Exploring the future of engineering education
Still Learning After All These Years

by Joannie M. Schrof

It would be easy to hate George Peterson, if he weren't so markedly likable. As the executive director of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, he leads an organization long thought of as engineering education's internal affairs police, a group that digs up flaws in college practices and yells "Gotcha!"

But Peterson is not a "Gotcha!" kind of guy, and under his leadership ABET is evolving into less of an auditor and more of a consulting agency. "I want schools to be glad when we come for a visit, to know that we are not out to get them but to help them be the kind of institution they most want to be," says Peterson. "It's not ABET's vision but a school's own that matters most."

"I became fascinated with how people learn,and that was the beginning of my ongoing excitement about engineering education."

Humble Origin

    Peterson's personal vision of life has always been dominated by education. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1942, he attended segregated schools and learned from his parents that education was the ticket up and out of the slow, touristy seaport. As a stellar high school student, Peterson had a natural penchant for chemistry, but he took the best college scholarship he could get, to North Carolina A&T in electrical engineering. Freshman year, when he was just 19 years old, Peterson lost his beloved younger brother, another star student and athlete who died suddenly after a high school track meet. He quietly bore the grief without missing an assignment at college.

    During his sophomore year, in a typically understated and deliberate manner, he married his high school sweetheart. "I invited Jeannette to Greensboro one weekend," he remembers. "We took a couple of friends to the justice of the peace, got married, got some popcorn, and walked back to campus." They have now been married for 35 years and live in Annapolis, Maryland, where they take every opportunity to hit the water in their 32-foot Maxim powerboat.

    Soon after graduating summa cum laude, Peterson joined the Air Force and was sent to Southeast Asia during Vietnam—leaving Jeanette in North Carolina with their three young children—to be the chief of radar maintenance for one of the main fighter wings in Thailand. There he learned what it was like to perform under tremendous pressure. It was up to Peterson to keep track of fighter jets and tankers as the two met up for mid-air refueling so the jets could more quickly head back into enemy territory. It was a tough assignment, and even when he did his job perfectly, he couldn't always protect his colleagues. One afternoon, just hours after he played racquetball on base with a buddy, Peterson sat in the mess hall and watched the same friend paraded across the television screen as a P.O.W. after his plane had been shot down.

    After one very long, "surreal" year in Asia, Peterson was reunited with his family and moved to Kansas City, the first of nine moves the family would make during his 23-year Air Force career. In Missouri, he researched matters such as how weather interferes with the electromagnetic waves used in Air Force communications. Then it was off to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Soon after that, Peterson was chosen for the plum assignment of teaching at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and by 1980, at the age of 38, he was made a full tenured professor.


Finding His True Calling

    Though learning was always of paramount importance to Peterson, in Colorado Springs he fell in love with teaching. "I became fascinated with how people learn, and that was the beginning of my ongoing excitement about engineering education," he says. "I quickly learned not to dump information on students, but to coach them to take responsibility for their own learning." His greatest joy in teaching was watching the light bulb go on when a student realized that he or she had the power to learn and to solve problems independently.

    His approach was so successful that by 1983, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis asked Peterson to chair its electrical engineering department. It was a very "spirited" assignment, he recalls, with plenty of shaving cream on his car whenever Navy and Air Force sports teams squared off. Before long, the National Science Foundation came calling, and Peterson accepted a post heading up efforts to encourage more students to develop an interest in engineering degrees. And before long again, Morgan State University enticed Peterson to become its vice president for academic affairs.

    Peterson chalks up his long string of top assignments to being at the right place at the right time, with the right credentials. And to not being able to say "no." "My staff hates it when I leave town," he jokes, "Because I always come back having committed to a half dozen new endeavors."

"ABET staff members are my peers, not beneath me.
All I may have to offer is a little more experience."

A New Direction

    Ever since the early 1980s when Peterson joined the Naval Academy, he had volunteered on the ABET teams that make the rounds to schools to ensure their quality. During that time, he saw firsthand that many schools dreaded ABET's visits, viewing them as more of an obstacle to progress than an aid. So when the directorship opened up in 1993, his head was already filled with ideas for how to make the accreditation process better. Brainstorming sessions ensued, and by 1995, Engineering Criteria 2000, a whole new system for quality assurance at universities, was born. One key difference between the old way and the new, says Peterson, is that the EC 2000 measures focus not so much on what professors teach—what courses, what syllabi, what texts—but on what students learn, what skills they develop, what jobs they take, and what they contribute to the pool of engineering knowledge. But most important, he says, is the philosophy shift: "ABET wants to see every school accredited, and to help make sure that happens." His staff members say that those words echo his personal management style, which is to set very high goals for employees, then coach them through to meet those goals.

    But Peterson is quick to fend off the credit for any positive outcomes that may come from EC 2000 and a reformed ABET. "This is not George Peterson's grand plan," he emphasizes. "There are 1,500 excellent academics collaborating to make the system better, and I personally learn something new every time I meet with the members of my staff." And although Peterson is in a position of great authority, he prefers to see himself as a colleague, not a boss, claiming he never hires anyone "dumber" than him: "ABET staff members are my peers, not beneath me. All I may have to offer is a little more experience."

    That may be why it meant so much to Peterson recently when a young academic from North Carolina State approached him at a conference to declare, "I like the new ABET. Before they would ream us, but now they try to help." In fact, Peterson says the greatest joy in his decades in engineering education is the fascinating people he gets to talk to. "The people I work with are my greatest joy in my career," he says. "So many times I've sat in a room listening to a colleague, marveling to myself 'Oh, that was wise.' "

    Peterson says his greatest challenges now are to help make an engineering degree relevant to the needs of industry and to help build an engineering force of top minds. "My passion is to make that engineering degree mean as much as it can," he says, "to make it denote the highest possible quality of education."

    Some in the field think that Peterson has already achieved that—despite his best efforts at self-effacement and diverting praise, he was just named the 1999 Black Engineer of the Year for the Promotion of Higher Education. Gotcha!


Joannie M. Schrof is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report

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