The new Caribbean Accreditation Council for Engineering and Technology in May accredited its first engineering program at the department of chemical and process engineering at the University of the West Indies, in St. Augustine, Trinidad. Accreditation signifies that a program maintains standards that qualify its graduates for professional practice or for admission to higher institutions of learning. Typically, it can take as long as a decade to set up a new accreditation system for a country or region, but CACET did it in just three years.
The university has two other campuses—in Barbados and Jamaica—as well as the one in Trinidad. The department of chemical and process engineering on the St. Augustine campus graduated 62 students in 2010, the most recent figure available. The mechanical and civil engineering departments are expected to have CACET accreditation visits later in 2011 or in early 2012. All told, the University of the West Indies has a total enrollment of more than 39 000 students, and annually it graduates some 5 800 students at undergraduate, graduate, and diploma levels.
CACET and its work were endorsed in February by the governments of the 15 member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which promotes economic integration and development in the region. CARICOM, as one of its mandates, is responsible for establishing standards and measures for accreditation, and for mutual recognition of diplomas, certificates, and other qualifications for various professions, including engineering. The CARICOM endorsement means that CACET is the preferred accrediting body for engineering and technology programs.
The organization of CACET and the criteria it developed for accreditation would not have been possible without the hard work of IEEE volunteers from around the world.
"Given the complexity of such operations, CACET sprang to life with amazing speed," says IEEE President Moshe Kam, who participated in many of the early meetings leading to CACET's formation.
Organizing an accreditation system was the brainchild in 2007 of IEEE members employed by the University of the West Indies (in St. Augustine) along with the chair of the IEEE Trinidad and Tobago Section, Chandrabhan Sharma. Also included were IEEE Member Brian Copeland, dean of the faculty of engineering, and Clement Imbert, the deputy dean.
"We wanted to ensure the quality of the region's engineering and technology programs," says Sharma, who led the effort to establish CACET and is now its president. The council is initially targeting the 12 English-speaking states in the Caribbean because as well as sharing a common history, they all have education systems based on the British system. CACET's accreditation visit to the University of the West Indies was held in parallel with a visit there by the Institution of Chemical Engineers, Sharma says. IChemE, an international professional membership organization headquartered in London, had been accrediting that school's program for 20 years
"The British institutions that have historically provided accreditation in the Caribbean are very far away and very expensive to retain," Sharma explains. "There also was a proliferation in the Caribbean of new businesses offering engineering and technology programs, so it was essential that the region have a group that could provide independent reviews of the programs' quality."
With his knowledge of engineering practice in the Caribbean nations, as well as being acquainted with their leading academics, Sharma put together a group of stakeholders to seek IEEE's help with forming an accreditation system. After all, IEEE has been involved with accreditation for some 80 years and it recently helped establish accreditation systems in Mexico and Peru. Also, IEEE is the largest of the 30 professional societies in ABET, the main accrediting agency for engineering, computing, technology, and applied science degree programs in the United States.
"We felt there was no other organization that we could trust to help bring our plan for accreditation to fruition," Sharma says. "Without IEEE's financial, technical, and logistical help, CACET would have been just a dream."
CACET was established with financial and technical support from the IEEE Educational Activities Board. The board's Committee on Global Accreditation Activities helped plan, fund, and organize a series of events, meetings, and program evaluator training between 2007 and 2010. Workshops on the subject of engineering accreditation geared toward the needs of CACET were held in Trinidad and Tobago in 2007 and in Guyana and Puerto Rico in 2008.
The workshops were meant to educate IEEE's regional groups in the Caribbean on the criteria that academic programs must meet to qualify for accreditation. Graduates of an engineering program should, for example, be able to design and conduct experiments based on stated assumptions and hypotheses and analyze and interpret the resulting data, according to Kam. Programs that seek accreditation need to demonstrate that their graduates have attained these skills and a whole host of other specified skills.
Engineering educators, professional societies, and CACET officials attended the workshops. Early on, the Committee on Global Accreditation Activities stepped in to formalize an agreement among participants to create CACET and develop its governing documents, as well as to coordinate the writing of the accreditation manual and the supporting materials.
"CACET accreditation documents are some of the most advanced and useful anywhere. CACET has been able to really learn from the experience of others, both good and bad," Kam says. "Unlike organizations that have tried to reform their accreditation programs, CACET did not have a 'traditional model' to modify. It did not get overloaded with old rules and regulations that in other places have been demonstrated to be onerous, even unworkable."
The global accreditation committee identified criteria for selecting program evaluators, who are generally chosen from regional colleges and industry. And perhaps most important, IEEE volunteers knowledgeable in accreditation came from around the world to train more than 40 program evaluators from the Caribbean region.
"CACET demonstrates that a few determined volunteers can make real change happen," Kam says. "IEEE members who harness the power of the organization to do good by the profession and by society are very often unstoppable."