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The Historical and Structural Context for the Proposed Changes to ABET Accreditation Criteria

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Trends in Accreditation and Assessment

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Atsushi Akera Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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Atsushi Akera is an Associate Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY). He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania. His current research is on the history of engineering education reform in the United States (1945-present). He is Immediate Past Chair of the ASEE Liberal Education / Engineering and Society Division, and the current Lead for the "Connecting Us" Team of the ASEE Board's Strategic Doing Initiative. He is a former member of the Society for the History of Technology’s (SHOT) Executive Council, and Associate Editor of the international journal, /Engineering Studies/. His publications include /Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers and Computers during the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research/ (MIT Press, 2006).

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Consider the following 1950 Presidential Address by ASEE President, Thorndike Saville:

"'Times change men and men with them': So also must education change to prepare men to cope with changing times. … Engineering education is the most complex and the most sensitive to social and political considerations of any of the professional disciplines. … this Society has always been prompt to relate the basic premises and curricula of engineering education to realistic appraisals of changing times and needs."

Taken at face value, this suggests that engineers position their professional claims somewhat differently than most other professions. Rather than claiming simple jurisdiction over an esoteric body of knowledge, engineers align their professional reputation to a cultivated ability to adapt their knowledge to serve an ever changing historical landscape. Placed within the framework of the philosophy of science, this is to suggest that engineers possess an ethnomethodologically accountable, if historically also changing body of practice for routinely reexamining the epistemological foundations of their discipline, and realigning their knowledge to serve the broader social context.

Historically, this practice of educational reform belonged to the ASEE and its long investigative tradition. However, during the 1950s and 1960s, as voices within ASEE grew more diverse, the initiative for curricular reform shifted to ABET’s precursor, the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development (ECPD). This responsibility was subsequently augmented to include the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). As historians, we are able to document these changes, and the associated change not only in major curricular recommendations, but the process for asserting and evaluating educational standards, especially under an accreditation-based regime.

This talk is part of a proposed session for discussing the current, proposed changes in ABET accreditation criteria, and the specific aim of my talk will be to provide the historic background necessary for a robust discussion of this topic. I will review the history of the engineers’ evolving attitudes towards liberal education as a component of professional education; ECPD’s shift from qualitative to quantitative standards for accreditation; its reversal under EC 2000; and the growing frustration felt by evaluators despite the expanding field of engineering education research focused on assessment. While for the purpose of open conversation, I will stop short of weighing in on whether the new criteria is better or worse for the profession, I will draw on theoretical perspectives from institutional sociology to point out the subtle shift in educational governance that led to the latest recommendations—a recommendation produced by a task force of ABET’s EAC, rather than through conversations among the leadership of ABET, NAE, and NSF. By the time we meet in New Orleans, I should be able to offer some speculations regarding both the reasons for and consequences of this shift. (I should also note that some of the material in this presentation draws on material previously presented at ASEE through LEES, but as repackaged and augmented to deal specifically with the issue of the proposed ABET changes.)

Akera, A. (2016, June), The Historical and Structural Context for the Proposed Changes to ABET Accreditation Criteria Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26168

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