If the United States is facing a STEM workforce crisis, as so many economic and industry analysts argue, the worst thing we could possibly do is abandon the very thing that sets U.S.-educated STEM workers apart: the broad education that endows our workers with professional competencies, the perspective to lead organizations in private and public sectors, and the flexibility to adapt to the changing and complex technologies that pervade our culture.
But engineering’s accreditation organization, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), appears to be doing exactly this with the rollout of new draft criteria that remove most professional competencies for engineers. In shifting from the existing 11 criteria to a new list of six seemingly streamlined requirements, ABET’s proposed revisions eliminate previous emphases on students’ knowledge of contemporary issues, educational scope intended to produce understanding of engineering in global and societal contexts, professional responsibility, and lifelong learning, among others.
What would possess ABET to do such a thing in the face of widespread industry demands for “T-shaped” workers who embody both breadth and depth? Why uncouple deep technical knowledge and “21st-century skills” like creativity and critical thinking? One answer may lie in economic pressures at American institutions of higher education, continually forced to trim budgets well past bare bones, cutting into core competencies. That seemingly practical circumstance, however, threatens the unique value of American-educated engineering graduates in an increasingly competitive global labor market.
Engineers of 2015 lose valuable capacity as STEM professionals when they lack the ability to comprehend the role of government and geopolitics in the engineering enterprise (and vice versa), or to reflect on how engineering enables and is itself facilitated by complex transnational flows of people and commodities. These are the deliverables of careful, immersive instruction supported by the excised criteria.
Another rationale for the reduced criteria likely lies in complaints from engineering faculty members and administrators that professional skills are too “fluffy” or “soft” to assess, whatever industry may demand of graduates. The pressure on all academic fields to maximize returns on institutional investments pushes assessment to the forefront and in this climate old stereotypes of humanistic, liberal or critical capacities as unmeasurable find new claimants.
But in fact, there are off-the-shelf packages that have been developed for assessing skills such as lifelong learning (see, for example, various standardized critical thinking batteries or the self-directed learning readiness scale). These may still be imperfect but they are no more so than tests deployed to measure skills like mathematical problem solving. Those bothered by the inadequacy of multiple-choice tests to assess the nuanced, multiperspective thinking required in, say, engineering ethics and professional responsibility instruction can turn to more sophisticated measures through evaluation of student case study analyses or reflective essays. Whether approached with off-the-shelf or more boutique instruments, it cannot be said that these skills are not assessable.
In at least one way ABET’s new draft criteria weaken the foundational idea of engineering as a professional collective, and in backing away from its historic position as disciplinary steward the organization may well cause lasting damage to its domain. Note that ABET has replaced the existing criterion that students attain “an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility” with a required “ability to demonstrate ethical principles.”
These are not equivalent, and we see a real risk of a deprofessionalization of engineering in this apparent move to detach practitioners’ decision making from disciplinary norms. Once personal morality can stand in for collective, professional responsibility, engineering is reduced to a vocation, its practitioners untethered to any consensus regarding societal welfare.
We do not advocate for a singular ethical framework but rather for a shared profession-level commitment to working through the contentious matters inhering in ethics, a commitment the new criterion leaves aside. How could such a turn away from common purpose not further weaken American STEM workers on the global stage?
If our nation is in a STEM crisis, we must not lower the bar for STEM workers but maintain and strengthen the professional competencies that set U.S.-trained engineers apart from those with narrower technical preparation. In our present-day assessment-driven regime, we assess what we value, and our assessment methods must evolve to do justice to the sophisticated professional skills of our STEM workers.
There is no question that accreditation systems must respond to changing economic and societal conditions, but in ABET’s proposal we see not an address but a denial of those conditions, including those that we believe are actually responsible for current shortages of excited, well-prepared young engineers. It is in fact time to double down and add one more essential professional competency: the ability to meaningfully include diverse groups in engineering practice, incorporating ideas from all groups in defining engineering challenges, fostering participation of all groups in engineering practice and equitably addressing impacts of engineering on all groups. This, more than any other professional competency, holds promise to lead us out of the STEM crisis.
Amy E. Slaton is professor of history and politics at Drexel University. Donna Riley is professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech.