Educating Engineers for the 21st Century:
The Role of Engineering Education and Accreditation
John W. Prados
Vice President Emeritus and University Professor
The University of Tennessee
419 Dougherty Engineering Building
Knoxville, TN 37996-2200
(865) 974-6053; Fax: (865) 974-7076
Engineering Education Paradigms
Pre-1950: Focus on engineering practice; design
according to codes and well-defined procedures;
limited use of mathematics; many faculty with
industrial experience and/or strong ties with industry
1950-1990: Focus on engineering sciences;
fundamental understanding of phenomena; analysis;
majority of faculty trained for academic research
1990-?: Focus on teamwork, communication,
integration, design, manufacturing, continuous
improvement; maintain analytic strength
U.S. Engineering Education
Roots in France to 1862
(Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Bordogna, with modifications)
1676 Corps du génie organized in the French Army - Louis XIV
1794 École Polytechnique established to train engineering officers, with
curriculum based in mathematics and science - Napoleon
1794 U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York - G. Washington
1817 First engineering curriculum at West Point modeled after
École Polytechnique - S. Thayer
1821 First civilian engineering course in the U.S. at Norwich Academy,
1835 First engineering degrees, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, NY
1860 Fewer than 10 engineering schools established in U.S.
1862 Morrill Land Grant Act fostered engineering school growth
U.S. Engineering Education: 1862-1945
(B.E. Seely, Journal of Engineering Education, July 1999)
<1880 Majority of engineers trained through apprenticeship; schools
emphasized hands-on experience in field, shop, and foundry
1880’s Engineering school “shop culture” begins to give way to “school
culture” (e.g., R. Thurston at Cornell), but strong hands-on
emphasis continues;new disciplines emerge: Electrical - MIT
(1882); Chemical- U of Illinois (1885)
1893 SPEE (now ASEE) founded
1907 Wyoming law requires licensing of engineers
1920s Great “engineering theorists” from Europe arrive: S. Timoshenko
(Russia), T. von Kármán (Hungary), H. Westergaard (Denmark)
1932 ECPD (now ABET) established by AIChE, AIEE, AIME, ASCE,
ASME, NSPE, NCEE, and SPEE; begins accreditation of
engineering programs in 1936
U.S. Engineering Education: 1945-
(B.E. Seely, Journal of Engineering Education, July 1999)
>1945 Federal government begins large-scale funding of research at
universities; key engineering education leaders move to
strengthen mathematical and scientific focus of engineering
education (e.g., F. E. Terman at Stanford, S. C. Hollister at
Cornell, E. A. Walker at Penn State, C. R. Soderberg at MIT)
1955 “Grinter Report” calls for increased emphasis on engineering
science; engineering design; humanities and social sciences; but,
final version drops recommendation that most schools also offer
practice-oriented, “professional-general” programs
>1960 Most engineering schools offer only “professional-scientific”
programs; employ faculty on basis of academic research
potential, not experience as practitioners
1980-? Increasing calls by employers for a new engineering education
paradigm that balances strong technical base with integrative,
contextual, teamwork, communication skills, etc.
Imperative for Reform: Challenges to
21st Century Engineers
Major driver for engineering employment has shifted
from defense to global competition; focus on time-
to-market, cost, quality, customer orientation.
Intelligent technologies offer opportunities to be more
creative, “work smarter;” can revolutionize learning.
Constantly-changing work environment calls for
astute interpersonal skills; employment opportunities
shifting to smaller firms, non-traditional areas.
Massively integrated populations, place environment,
health, and safety at the front end of design; zero
discharge, life-cycle costs, social and political
concerns change the classical economic balance.
21st Century Engineering Skills Essential for a
Strong technical capability
Skills in communication and persuasion
Ability to lead and work effectively as a member of a
Understanding of the non-technical forces that
profoundly influence engineering decisions
(“Engineering is design under constraint.” -- NAE
President William Wulf)
Commitment to lifelong learning
The Reality ?
Employer Perceptions of Weaknesses in
Today’s Engineering Graduates (Todd et al.)
No understanding of manufacturing processes
Lack of design capability or creativity
Lack of appreciation for considering alternatives
All want to be analysts
Narrow view of engineering and related disciplines
No understanding of the quality process
Weak communication skills
Little skill or experience in working in teams
Broad Agreement on the Need for
Multiple reports over the past 10-15 years show remarkable
consistency in the attributes needed in 21st Century engineering
graduates and in the need for a new educational paradigm to
develop these attributes.
There is also broad agreement that systemic reform of
engineering education will require a concurrent change from the
predominant engineering school culture based on
compartmentalization of knowledge, individual specialization,
and a wholly research-based reward structure to one that values
integration as well as specialization, teamwork as well as
individual achievement, and educational research and
innovation as well as research in the engineering sciences.
A Vision of the New Engineering
Active, project-based learning
Integrated development of mathematical and
scientific concepts in the context of application
Close interaction with industry
Broad use of information technology
Faculty devoted to developing emerging
professionals as mentors and coaches, rather
than as all-knowing dispensers of information
An impossible dream?
So Why Doesn’t It Happen?
Academic institutions, by centuries-old tradition, are slow to
Faculty governance process often talks proposed changes to
Educational tradition in the U.S. is teacher-centered, not learner
Strong culture focused on individual, specialized achievement
inhibits faculty collaboration, especially across disciplinary
Faculty reward system and funding patterns in research
universities discourage the investment of significant faculty time
in educational innovation.
At some institutions, industry collaboration is frowned upon; at
others, remote location makes such collaboration difficult.
Forces for Change
Engineering college and departmental advisory boards
Engineering professional societies, for example:
» American Society for Engineering Education Engineering
» Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Education
(IEEE) Education Society
Private foundations, for example, the F. W. Olin Foundation (Olin
College); the Lemelson Foundation (National Collegiate Inventors
and Innovators Alliance)
The National Science Foundation
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
Information technology and cognitive science (enablers)
Meaning and Characteristics of
Educational quality control in the US takes place
through the process of accreditation.
Reflects a professional judgment that certain
standards of educational quality are met.
Tells prospective students and the public that
graduates have achieved a certain minimum level of
competence in their fields of study.
Acts as a form of consumer protection.
» Conducted through a peer review process.
Kinds of Accreditation
INSTITUTIONAL ACCREDITATION seeks to assess
the overall operation of a college or university from a
SPECIALIZED ACCREDITATION focuses in detail
on specific programs that educate students for
professions (law, medicine, architecture, engineering,
Accredited by the Engineering Accreditation
Commission(EAC) of the Accreditation Board for
Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET).
ABET is recognized by the U.S. Office of Education
to accredit Engineering and Engineering Technology
programs in the United States.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering
and Technology, Inc. (ABET)
ABET is an association of 31 professional societies. It conducts a
program of voluntary accreditation based on a peer-review process for
programs in engineering, engineering technology, and engineering-
related fields at U.S. colleges and universities.
Currently ABET accredits approximately:
» 1740 engineering programs at 350 institutions.
» 680 engineering technology programs at 225 institutions (2-year
» 70 applied science programs at 50 institutions
» 215 computer/info. science/tech programs at 195 institutions
Accreditation information is provided through a self-study by the
institution and a report of an on-site review team.
ABET is now changing the focus of its accreditation criteria from
“inputs” (subject and credit hour requirements) to “outcomes” (what
have students learned, and how can you tell?)
ABET accredits engineering programs, not
departments or schools.
ABET requires that the program name include the
word engineering to be accredited as an engineering
Accreditation information is provided through a self-
study by the institution and a report of an on-site
Accreditation decisions are based on published
Institution requests that ABET evaluate its
engineering program(s); prepares self-study.
EAC forms a team of professional peers from
industry and education to conduct the evaluation.
Team reviews self-study and conducts a 2-day visit to
Team prepares a preliminary report of findings and
submits to the institution for comment.
EAC reviews team’s report and the institution’s
comments and votes an accreditation action for each
Possible Accreditation Actions
NGR (Next General Review): Program accredited until Next
General Review (maximum 6 years).
IR (Interim Report): Accredit for limited term; extend to NGR if
Report demonstrates correction of specified deficiencies.
IV (Interim Visit): Accredit for limited term; extend to NGR if
Visit demonstrates correction of specified deficiencies.
SC (Show Cause): Reaccredit for limited term; extend only if
institution can show why accreditation should not be removed;
visit must demonstrate correction of serious deficiencies.
NA (Not to Accredit): Denial of accreditation to new program
or program already on Show Cause; serious deficiencies (still)
ABET Support for Innovation
An early statement of the ECPD Council was:
“(ECPD) has no authority to impose
restrictions or standardizations upon
engineering colleges, nor does it desire to
This statement is echoed in current
ABET Problem - Overly Prescriptive Criteria
(Courtesy of Dr. Edward A. Parrish, former EAC Chair)
Year Number of Pages
Prior to 1955 1
1987 16 ½
1999 19 ½
Other ABET Problems
Accreditation process was long and complex; reports
received 3 levels of inspection (still had defects);
excessive time demands on ABET volunteers and
schools preparing for accreditation.
It was difficult to attract technically-active, mid-career
professionals from industry and research universities
to leadership roles in accreditation (too much time
demand and too much bean-counting).
Traditional criteria did not encourage the integrative,
team-oriented, engineering education paradigm that
employers increasingly advocate -- often used as an
excuse for inertia -- “ABET won’t let us…”
ABET On The Move
With NSF and industry support, ABET held three consensus-
building workshops in 1994, dealing with three major issues:
Criteria, Process, and Participation.
In the following years with strong industry input, ABET
developed outcomes-based Criteria 2000, which emphasize:
» Publicly stated, measurable objectives based on needs of
the program’s constituencies (expected achievements of
graduates during early years of practice)
» ABET-defined outcomes for engineering education (what
students can do at the time of graduation)
» Institutional processes to evaluate the achievement of
objectives and outcomes; use results for continuous
improvement of the educational processes
ABET review under Criteria 2000 focuses on consistency of
objectives with the specified goals and effectiveness of the
continuous improvement process.
The underlying philosophy of the EC 2000
accreditation process is continuous
Long-term survival of any enterprise today,
be it manufacturing, service, or even
education, demands a commitment to
An educational experience that satisfies EC
2000 will, of necessity, expose students to
concepts of continuous improvement.
(Courtesy of Dr. Ira Jacobson, former EAC Chair)
Some advantages of EC 2000
» Graduates better prepared for 21st century practice
» More constituent involvement
» Program differentiation
» Innovation (harder to say “ABET won’t let us…”)
» Accountability to constituents
Some difficulties with EC 2000
» Uncertainty; no existing models in engineering
» Self-evaluation and continuous improvement are
foreign to academic culture
» Evaluator training is critical - must exercise superior
professional judgment (but more rewarding?)
» Additional effort to implement - but once process is
functioning, ABET data should be available routinely
Traditional Curricular Change Process
Incremental – usually look at only one subject area at a time
Focused almost wholly on content – add new material
(painless), sometimes delete old material (painful), and agonize
over whether or not to increase the total hour requirements
Based on commonly accepted assumptions:
» The goal of the curriculum is to “cover the material,” i.e., to
transmit a designated body on knowledge and set of tools to
» This goal can be accomplished through lectures,
supplemented by a limited number of laboratory experiences
and occasional group project work, usually confined to
engineering laboratories and capstone design experience
» Does NOT lead to a new educational paradigm.
Holistic Curricular Change Process
Based on Continuous Improvement
Develop list of measurable learning outcomes for the program
Develop list of measurable learning outcomes for each required
Examine matrix of program learning outcomes vs. educational
experience learning outcomes
Modify required educational experiences to assure that all
program learning outcomes are adequately supported; may
require changes in curriculum, course content, and/or learning
Establish a regular process to review results from measured
achievement of program learning outcomes and to modify
required educational experiences in areas of weakness
Establish a process for periodic review of program learning
outcomes by external constituencies (e.g., advisory board)
“ABET must set high standards for the
effectiveness of institutional processes, and not
all programs will be able to meet them.
However, in the final analysis, ABET’s role is no
different from that of a truly dedicated faculty
member -- to set high standards and then do
everything in his or her power to help students
“Editor’s Page,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 86, April
1997, pp. 70-71