How are we doing?

Source: Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

I spent a large part of this week online at the annual meeting of the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) of ABET.

What does it mean?

The EAC has about 140 members who serve as chairs for teams that review BS and MS engineering programs in the US and around the world. Most BS engineering programs in the US are ABET accredited. Graduates of accredited programs have certain privileges. Some companies preferentially hire only graduates of ABET accredited programs. Graduates are eligible to take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, the first step in becoming a licensed professional engineer. Most importantly, prospective students know that an ABET accredited program and has been found to meet certain criteria for the program.

Maintaining ABET accreditation requires that, every six years, the program submit a program report demonstrating that the program meets eight criteria concerning students (evaluating student performance, monitoring their progress, and advising them), program educational objectives (what graduates are expected to attain within a few years after graduation), student outcomes (what students are expected to know and be able to do by the time of graduation), continuous improvement (documented processes for assessing and evaluating the extent to which student outcomes are being met and using those results for continuous improvement), curriculum (a minimum number of semester house of math and science and of engineering topics, as well as a broad education and a culminating major engineering design experience), faculty (of sufficient number and with appropriate competencies and qualifications), facilities, and institutional support. The team reviews this report and visits the program to determine if the criteria have been met.

The program has the opportunity to correct errors of fact in the report and to submit additional information in a process that lasts almost an entire year. Reflecting its commitment to processes, continuous improvement, and certification, ABET’s own processes are ISO 9001:2015 certified. ABET holds itself to similar standards as those used to judge the programs. Each program report is edited by the team chair and, in turn, three more editors, each with increasing ABET experience. At the July meeting, team chairs meet in panels to review the reports, taking into account suggestions made by a consistency committee who have reviewed all reports. Finally, the entire EAC approves the hundreds of reports, mostly on a consent agenda, but a handful of programs are discussed and voted on by the entire EAC. I cannot, of course, discuss any of the reports or discussions because confidentiality is a requirement of all our activities. Only the final results are available publicly, in this list of accredited programs.

Program evaluators and team chairs undergo training and retraining. I did an online refresher training before the meeting and attended three additional live training sessions during the week. Everyone evaluates everyone, with the programs giving feedback and team chairs and team members all evaluating each other.

While the ABET meeting has always taken place in July in Baltimore, we met online in 2020 and 2021. We also did virtual instead of in person visits this year, a change that required even more training for team chairs and evaluators.

All the people I have mentioned, except for the very highest editors in the review process, are volunteers.

What does it mean for you?

I am very pleased to be involved in such an excellent organization. I do not pretend that I enjoy every moment, that I do not get sometimes frustrated or even angry, nor that ABET does not make mistakes, but the overwhelming emphasis on processes and continuous improvement creates an environment that is, mostly, a good one to work in or, in this case, to volunteer in.

Also, in my 40 years as an engineering professor, especially in my 21 years as a department chair, I participated in many ABET reviews as part of the program being reviewed. Again, I didn’t enjoy every moment, I sometimes got frustrated or even angry, and I thought ABET made some mistakes, but I saw continuous improvement in ABET. I also found that the criteria and the need for accreditation provided wide but effective guideways for our programs.

My message for you is that all the developments and methods for continuous improvement really work. An emphasis on processes, using teams, training people well, providing avenues for feedback, etc., etc. –  it all works to create an organization that functions well.

To me, the essence of continuous improvement is continuously asking “how are we doing?” and then answering that question by collecting and evaluating data. That framework is the core of industrial engineering, my field of expertise.

COVID required all of us, including ABET to move many activities online instead of in person. ABET visits will be virtual again this year, but we will return to an in person meeting in July 2022, so discussions have already begun on what features of online meetings could and should perhaps be maintained in an in person meeting. Since the 140 members of EAC almost all already sit in front of personal computers at the in person meeting, in order to access the many documents we need to review during the meeting, can we use some online features in the future? For example, at our roll call for the newly seated Commission for 2021-2022, we used Zoom features to enable all of us to actually see all of the commissioners as they gave a simple “here.” In a room of 140 people, that is not possible. That is a simple and perhaps unimportant feature, but it personalized the meeting in a nice way. In fact, when anyone spoke I could see and hear them better than I sometimes do during in person meetings.  Also, Zoom provides an easy way to move into and out of the waiting room Commissioners who need to be excused from discussions of particular programs due to conflicts of interest.

Of course, in person meetings have advantages, most notable the hallway conversations. We are looking forward to being back to together in July 2022 but reflecting on how our processes might change – for continuous improvement.

Where can I learn more?

The ABET website has more information about how ABET operates. ABET has other commissions besides the EAC that accredit programs in Applied and Natural Science, Computing, Engineering and Technology.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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