Engineering Accreditation and the First Year Physics Course

From Challenges in Physics Education, August 1998: A series of papers that summarizes major issues in current physics education to promote discussion of constructive actions by the physics community.

The Issue:

Changes in the criteria for accreditation of engineering schools place new demands on the introductory course in physics.


With rare exceptions, Physics Departments have never attracted very large numbers of undergraduate majors. Departments generally justify their existence to university officials on two grounds: 1) the excellence of their graduate programs and their ability to attract large amounts of outside research funding and 2) the large number of student credit hours produced by the introductory level service courses in physics. The service courses generally fall into two classes, the calculus-based course taken by physical science majors and engineering students and the algebra-based course taken primarily by students in the life sciences. In many institutions, the overwhelming majority of students in the first-year, calculus-based course are engineering students.

Physics Departments currently exist in a climate of declining enrollment of undergraduate majors (now at pre-Sputnik levels), declining research funding, and increasing demands by state legislators and the media that university faculty members demonstrate their involvement with undergraduate teaching. In this climate, the student credit hours generated by the introductory calculus-based physics course become critical to maintaining faculty positions within physics departments. Changes in the guidelines for accreditation of engineering schools that impact the enrollments in this first year physics course carry the potential for major impacts on physics departments.

ABET and Engineering Criteria 2000

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) was established in 1932 and is overseen by twenty-two professional engineering societies. ABET certifies engineering programs whose graduates meet specific professional criteria through an extensive process involving written reports, site visits and extensive interviews. ABET accreditation is considered essential for any quality engineering program, and there are 1430 accredited engineering programs in the U.S.

Faced with the demands of today's changing workplace, ABET has revised its criteria to simplify them and to allow individual schools more flexibility in planning their curricula so that graduates will have more actual engineering experience when they graduate. The new guidelines focus on the skills and knowledge that engineering graduates should have rather than on the specific courses students should be required to take. The resulting criteria, Engineering Criteria 2000, are considerably shorter than the old criteria. They are being phased in over three years beginning this year.

The specific language that relates to physics is as follows:

Old Criteria:

Item IV.C.3 specifies courses that must be taken in a variety of subjects and runs for four pages.

IV.C.3.d reads:

While ABET favors a flexible approach to the design of curricular content, it also recognizes the need for specific coverage in each curricular area. These are:

IV.C.3.d.(1) Mathematics and Basic Sciences

IV.C.3.d.(1)(b) The objective of the studies in basic sciences is to acquire fundamental knowledge about nature and its phenomena including quantitative expression. These studies must include both general chemistry and calculus-based general physics at appropriate levels, with at least a two-semester (or equivalent) sequence of study in either area. Also, additional work in life sciences, earth sciences, and or advanced chemistry or physics may be utilized to satisfy the basic sciences requirement, as appropriate for various engineering disciplines.

New Criteria:

The four-page specifics of the old guidelines, partially quoted above, have been replaced by the following paragraph.

Criterion 4. Professional Component

The Professional Component requirements specify subject areas appropriate to engineering but do not prescribe specific courses. The engineering faculty must assure that the program curriculum devotes adequate attention and time to each component consistent with the objectives of the program and institution. Students must be prepared for engineering practice through the curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier course work and incorporating engineering standards and realistic constraints that include most of the following considerations: economic; environmental; sustainability; manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social; and political. The professional component must include

  1. one year of a combination of college level mathematics and basic sciences (some with experimental experience) appropriate to the discipline (N.B.,.this refers to a full year of courses)
  2. one and one-half years of engineering topics, to include engineering sciences and engineering design appropriate to the student's field of study
  3. a general education component that complements the technical content of the curriculum and is consistent with the program and institution objectives.

In addition, each engineering field specifies a curriculum as a criteria for accreditation. Since these criteria have been written by different engineering societies, they have no consistent style or interpretation. For example, architectural engineering specifies:

Graduates of the program must have demonstrated proficiency in mathematics through differential equations, probability and statistics, calculus-based physics; and general chemistry...

On the other hand, electrical engineering specifies:

Graduates must have demonstrated knowledge of probability and statistics, including applications appropriate to the program name and objectives; knowledge of mathematics through differential and integral calculus, basic sciences, and engineering sciences necessary to analyze and design complex devices and systems containing hardware and software components, as appropriate to program objectives. Graduates must also have demonstrated a knowledge of advanced mathematics, typically including differential equations, linear algebra, complex variables, and discrete mathematics...

Taken at face value, it is necessary that architectural engineering student know something about physics while electrical engineers need only know specifically about mathematics. Of course it may be that the necessity of a knowledge of physics was so obvious to electrical engineers that they did not bother to write it down.

Yet another example, the criteria for aerospace engineering specifies:

Aeronautical engineering graduates must have demonstrated a knowledge of aerodynamics, aerospace materials, structures, propulsion, flight mechanics, and stability and control. Astronautical engineering graduates must have demonstrated a knowledge of orbital mechanics, space environment, attitude determination and control, telecommunications, space structures, and rocket propulsion... This requires neither a specific mathematics nor physics background.

The Challenge for Physics Departments

Clearly, ABET no longer specifically requires one year of calculus-based physics. On the other hand, our colleagues on the engineering faculty seem to recognize the importance of the content addressed by an introductory physics course and its importance in developing problem solving skills. Nevertheless, it is possible that some engineering departments might be tempted to reduce the required student credit hours in the introductory physics. At a minimum, the new criteria will focus the engineering departments' efforts in examining physics courses to determine if they are responsive to their needs. The new ABET criteria challenge physics departments to improve the instruction offered in the first year physics course and to respond more directly to the needs of the schools of engineering.

Possible Responses of Physics Departments Constructive Dialogue with Your Engineering Departments:

A physics department should be able to articulate to its engineering colleagues the value of learning physics within physics departments. Since the new ABET requirements are designed to give the engineering departments the freedom to design their own programs, it is useful for physics departments to consult with engineering faculty about the skills, content, and pedagogy that they desire in an introductory physics course. This type of interaction is most productive if it is well structured. Responses to a written survey can provide a good starting point. This type of consultation reassures the engineering faculty and their students that the introductory physics course is relevant to their education. It is, of course, important that the physics department respond to this input by revising the introductory course where necessary. A careful iterative process of course modifications with this type of consultation should lead to an introductory physics course with a set of goals and a style supported by both the Engineering Departments and the Physics Department.

Assure a High Quality Course:

Because these introductory courses are so important to the very existence of Physics Departments, it is imperative that they are taught by excellent instructors and in the most productive manner. These courses are also the most difficult to teach since they have so many audiences and constraints. For these reasons, Departments should consider giving extra incentives to the faculty who teach the introductory courses. If teaching assistants are used in laboratory and/or recitation sections, extensive training should give them the background needed to get started. A TA support program should include regular contact with the lecturer to ensure consistency of approach and content and class visitations to give TAs feedback to help improve their teaching. Physics Departments can get valuable assistance from their College of Education, University Teaching Center, or AAPT.

Use the Most Appropriate Pedagogy:

Physics Departments should also take advantage of effective new, research based, teaching methods such as: collaborative learning, interactive lectures, integrated laboratory experiences, structured problem solving, conceptual tutorials, and technology enhancements to make the classroom more interactive, aid visualizations through simulations, and provide real-time physical feedback. Of course no single style of instruction is best for all students in all situations. The pedagogy chosen must be adapted to each individual Department to be consistent with the goals chosen for the course, the nature of the students, the nature of the instructor, and the nature of the institution.

A starting point for finding more information on physics education is the special education issue of APS News and the AAPT Physical Science Resource Center.

Possible Responses of the APS

The American Physical Society can assist Physics Departments in meeting the challenge of the new ABET requirements. To help both Physics and Engineering Departments clarify the impact of the ABET requirements on physics, the APS should request that ABET provide some editorial consistency among the criteria listed for the individual engineering fields. It would be useful if the requirements for all supporting fields be given with the same degree of specificity. If a supporting field is not mentioned, that should indicate its relative importance. The APS could even offer to supply some consultants to work with the staff and the various committees to craft the language desired.

Because valid questionnaires are difficult to construct, it would be useful if the APS supported the design of a questionnaire that Physics Departments could modify and use in their interactions with Engineering Departments. For example, such a questionnaire has already been tested and used at the University of Minnesota.

To guide Physics Departments in choosing appropriate pedagogy, the APS might sponsor a web site describing the existing research based techniques for teaching introductory physics together with their appropriate venues and their limitations. Another possibility is a short booklet giving references and contact persons for those desiring to learn more.


The new ABET criteria challenge physics departments, but like all challenges, they offer an opportunity. They challenge us to work with our engineering colleagues to reexamine our introductory courses and offer us the opportunity to build a new generation of introductory physics courses which take advantage both of modern research on students' learning and of new results in physics.

Don Madison,
Professor of Physics and Director of the Laboratory for Atomic, Molecular and Optical Research
University of Missouri-Rolla
Rolla, MO 65409-0640
phone: 573-341-4703
fax: 573-341-4715

Lori Goldner
Bldg 220 Room A320
Gaithersburg, MD 20899
phone: (301) 975-3792
fax:: (301) 840-8551