FEd April 1998 Newsletter -Engineering Accreditation Changes: a Threat or an Opportunity for Physics Programs?

April 1998



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Engineering Accreditation Changes: a Threat or an Opportunity for Physics Programs?

Paul Zitzewitz, Chair, Forum on Education

Do you and your physics colleagues provide a service course for an undergraduate engineering program? If you do you are certainly aware of the credit hours the required calculus-based physics courses generates. Nationally 50% of the student credit hours generated by physics departments come from engineering students. Thus any change in the requirements for an engineering degree is important for physics programs.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc., or ABET, is in the midst of a three-year migration to a new set of standards, Engineering Criteria 2000. These standards, which are being phased in over the next three years, are available at the ABET website, http://www.abet.org. The new standards, which have been planned, discussed, and revised since 1996, are fundamentally different from the old. Their focus is on the educational objectives of engineering programs and on the way the programs determine whether or not the objectives are met. Thus rather than prescribing the number of hours of instruction, engineering programs must demonstrate that graduates have an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering, to analyze and interpret data, to function on multi­disciplinary teams, to communicate effectively, and to have an ability to engage in life­long learning. Evidence that may be used includes, but is not limited to the following: student portfolios, including design projects; nationally­normed subject content examinations; alumni surveys that document professional accomplishments and career development activities; employer surveys; and placement data of graduates.

The new criteria specify that "the course work must include at least one year of an appropriate combination of mathematics and basic sciences." ABET defines one year as the equivalent of 32 semester hours or 48 quarter hours. The Criteria 2000 document states that "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 calculus­based general physics at appropriate levels, with at least a two­semester (or equivalent) sequence of study in either area." There is no requirement that the mathematics or science courses must be taught outside of the engineering school.

While there is still room for 16 (semester) hours of mathematics and 8 each of chemistry and physics, if the physics and chemistry courses are 10 credit hours, engineering may decide to reduce the requirement in one of the sciences to one term only. There is also no room for required upper division courses.

The ABET accreditation criteria demand that "the overall curriculum must provide an integrated educational experience directed toward the development of the ability to apply pertinent knowledge to the identification and solution of practical problems in the designated area of engineering specialization." Do the traditional calculus courses taught in the mathematics department and the calculus-based physics course taught by physicists achieve this goal for the engineering student? A 1995 NSF report ("Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change," NWF Workshop on Engineering Education, National Science Foundation, April 1995, p 8) suggested that it is not "efficient" to teach mathematics and the sciences in isolation from their engineering applications. The report charged engineering faculty with taking leadership roles in integrating courses. The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Drexel University, developed the ECE21 Curriculum (see http://cbis.ece.drexel.edu/ECE/ECE21/ece21.html) that follows the Drexel E4 (Enhanced Educational Experience for Engineers) program. The ECE21 document states that students are introduced to science and mathematics "on a just-in-time basis, to solve real engineering problems." Their program includes a three-quarter long course, Mathematical and Physical Foundations of Engineering, that provides "an introduction to mathematics and physics, the foundation of engineering" in an integrated approach. Details of this course were presented at the 1996 ICUPE conference. (D. H. Thomas and T.S. Venkataraman, "Drexel University's Freshman Engineering Physics Course" in The Changing Role of Physics Departments in Modern Universities, E.F. Redish and J.S. Rigden, editors, AIP Conference Proceedings 399, 1997, pp 79ff) The primary physics content of the course is mechanics. Electromagnetic waves and heat are taught in a two-term engineering course on energy. In the third and fourth years there are additional interdisciplinary courses involving gravity, electricity, and quantum mechanics, traditional engineering topics, and economics.

Responding to another ABET-led initiative to shift program emphasis from engineering science to engineering design and practice, the "Engineering First" core curriculum at Northwestern University makes design an integral part of the curriculum, starting in the first year. But, they note that unless first-year students are exposed to engineering, their design projects will be very limited. They also believe that students will be better motivated by first year courses that have greater engineering content. Thus mechanics, previously taught in the first quarter of the year-long physics course, linear algebra, differential equations, and two engineering courses are integrated into a four-quarter course sequence Engineering Analysis, (EA). A year each of calculus and chemistry are taken concurrently with the first three quarters of EA. In the second year, the second and third quarters of the traditional physics course are taken in the Physics Department.

Not all engineering initiatives have produced integrated courses. The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Carnegie Mellon University established a "Wipe the Slate Clean Committee" in 1989. Their new curriculum, used for the first time in 1991 increased the exposure of first-year students to engineering while still requiring a two-term sequence of basic physics and two upper division math/science electives. See http://www.ece.cmu.edu/Curric/Curric.toc.3.cfm for details.

Are these changes a threat or an opportunity for physics departments? If a department's "bread and butter" course is no longer required for engineering students, or if the school of engineering decides it can teach a more "relevant" physics course itself, the resulting drop in credit hour production could lead to less income, less flexibility to offer low-enrollment upper-division physics courses, or fewer graduate students or faculty; the regulations are a definite threat.

On the other hand, if the accreditation changes can lead to constructive dialog among the engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and physics faculty in a university over ways of making course material more relevant to all students then an improved university experience could result for all students. Physics departments might also try to emulate Northwestern's program and put "Physics First." How can we give our students a sense of the excitement of physics research, or enable them to conduct research projects early in their careers? Can our colleagues in industry and the national laboratories help? The Forum and its newsletter and website can serve as a means of further discussion on the effects on physics departments of the accreditation changes and creative responses that departments have made. Please communicate directly with me or with any of our newsletter editors.

Reform: Sputnik and Today

Stan Jones

In the fall of last year the National Academy of Sciences held a symposium prompted by the 40th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. That launch gave impetus to a variety of "reforms" in science, math, and engineering education. I think it is fair to say that a great number of the members of this Forum were influenced in one way or another by the reforms of the 50's and 60's. For me, it was SMSG math, and PSSC physics. Included in this issue of the Newsletter are excerpts from some of the papers(1) at that symposium which analyzed the meaning of the post-Sputnik reform movement.

We find ourselves again in the midst of reform in science education, a reform prompted in part by the publication of "A Nation at Risk(2)." Indeed, one might say we have spent much of the last half of the century "reforming" science education. The paper presented by Rodger Bybee at the Sputnik Symposium begins by asking the pertinent question "Why is this educational reform different from all other reforms?" If past reforms "failed," how do we know the next one won't? Bybee goes on to answer that question, saying that, first, past reforms have not been total failures, only incomplete successes. We build on lessons learned from past efforts, adding what we have learned in the meantime.

One very important lesson learned over the years is that students are not all alike, and that we have a vast and diverse audience to serve. There is, therefore, no single way to best serve all students. We are asked to be aware of different modes of learning, and correspondingly, different ways of teaching, so that we might serve the students we face. We are asked to teach "Science for All Americans(3)," and also train the next generation of physicists. Not to mention the pre-meds.

Just as science is a process and not a book of facts, reform is an ongoing process. It is not an event that occurs once and is then finished, leaving the system in equilibrium for another generation. We are all the time re-examining our philosophy of education, our curriculum and techniques, and our standards; at least we should be doing this. In my local College of Education, the process is called being a reflective teacher. In reflecting on what we are doing, we revise, innovate, reject when we must, and thus continually reform our practices.

It is true, however, that certain ideas grab our attention and call for major shifts in our point of view. In this sense, the turn toward conceptual learning, toward science literacy for all students, and toward student centered (active) learning, constitute real changes in the way we view science education. Like the introduction of PSSC physics 40 years ago, the new ideas are generating considerable discussion. Unlike that reform, they are also generating (and being prompted by) substantive research. We cannot ignore this new movement, this new reform , which affects all who teach and who strive to continually improve their effectiveness as teachers.

Also in this issue are two interviews with physics educators on the subject of reform. They bring current reform efforts into focus, and also raise new issues that are just being recognized. The recently adopted national science standards are part of the current reform effort. In an article reprinted from the American Astronomical Society newsletter, Jay Pasachoff notes some significant oversights in these standards.

In the previous issue, I issued a challenge to the readers to give their views on proposals raised in this newsletter about broadening the spectrum of paths to a physics bachelor's degree. Several took up the challenge; their letters and an article from Illinois State are in this issue.