When you hear about the need for evaluators to accredit engineering and engineering technology programs, a number of questions probably run through your mind. What is accreditation? Why is it important? How can I help? I’ll do my best to answer them.
What is accreditation?
In its fundamental concept, accreditation is a mechanism to assure the quality of education in postsecondary programs. It is a peer-review process that the educational institutions or programs volunteer to undergo to determine if certain criteria are being met.
Accreditation is not a ranking system; it’s simply a process to determine if the institution or program is meeting established standards.
There are two types: Institutional accreditation evaluates the overall quality of the school, and it’s generally conducted by a regional organization. Specialized accreditation evaluates a specific program of study, such as architecture, engineering, medicine, or nursing.
Although there are a number of recognized accreditation organizations, ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) is one of the largest and has the greatest impact on the engineering community in the United States. ABET is composed of more than 30 member organizations, both technical and professional. They include IEEE, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the American Society for Engineering Education, and the National Society of Professional Engineers.
IEEE is the lead society for specific engineering and engineering technology programs. These include computer engineering and computer engineering technology, electrical/electronic engineering, and telecommunications engineering technology.
ABET, in conjunction with its members, establishes specific program criteria against which the institutional programs are measured. In some cases, the member organization may add program-specific requirements in addition to ABET’s general criteria. For example, the general criteria for accrediting engineering technology programs have nine standards each institution must address.
The school, for example, must provide a broad-based educational program that develops students’ ability to solve problems. Although the program might be designed to provide in-depth technical knowledge, humanities and social science courses must be included. The program needs to demonstrate that faculty have the appropriate academic and professional experience, industry knowledge, technical currency, scholarly activity, and professional society participation. It also must have suitable classrooms, laboratories, and equipment.
When an institution asks ABET to review a program for accreditation, it begins the process by conducting a self-evaluation. The institution prepares material to be used by program evaluators (PEVs), who visit the campus, review the material, provide an assessment, and write findings for areas that require additional work. The PEVs are volunteers with academic or industry knowledge who have received training so they understand the program criteria. For IEEE, PEVs are selected and supplied by either the Committee on Engineering Accreditation Activities or the Committee on Engineering Technology Accreditation Activities (CETAA).
Accreditation depends on the efforts of motivated and qualified evaluators.
Why is accreditation important?
Employers require transcripts from universities as part of their review of potential employees. In some cases, if the applicant’s degree is not from an accredited institution, the hiring organization might require the candidate to have two to three times the equivalent experience. Many professional registration agencies and certification boards, such as those for professional engineers, also require the candidate to be a graduate of an accredited program without the equivalent experience adjustment.
The accreditation process provides universities with a structured approach to continually evaluate and improve their programs. Such ongoing assessments are further evidence that the school has an interest in maintaining a high standard of education.
How can I help?
It is in the role of PEV where your help is greatly needed.
Recruiting PEVs from academic institutions is relatively easy, because schools recognize the value of the PEV training and experience. Frequently, an institution will make such service part of the tenure development package for a new academic representative.
It’s more difficult to sell the return on investment to industries and government agencies, though. They are more frequently driven by revenue, and anything that interferes with that is often viewed in disfavor. Yet PEVs from those organizations are sorely needed to balance the review process—and to introduce industry requirements into future program criteria. After all, industry and government are the primary users of new engineers.
To participate, you first need to complete the online application and attend one weekend training session. Then, when an assignment comes up, you would spend four to five days in preparation followed by three or four days conducting the review on location. Typically, PEVs are assigned only one institution to visit each year. Some years they get no assignments at all.
The benefits of being a PEV include the opportunity to make industry and government educational needs known, the ability to bring personal experience to the assessment process, and the chance to interact with professionals from around the world.
I encourage you to take the plunge. If you do, you will have considerable impact on future engineers, how they are trained, and the skills they need to be successful.
Floyd is an IEEE life senior member and has been an ABET program evaluator for more than 15 years. He is a past chair of the CETAA.