What is ABET and What does it have to do with physics?

Keryl Cryer and M. Dayne Aldridge

As a physics professional, you may be familiar with some institutions related to STEM fields. Here is an overview of one organization in this area and how it relates to physics.

What is ABET?

ABET is a nonprofit organization consisting of 30 professional and technical societies that collaborate to accredit postsecondary degree programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology in the United States and abroad. ABET currently accredits 2800 programs at more than 600 colleges and universities, primarily in the United States but increasingly abroad also.

ABET has a long history, dating back more than 75 years. In 1932, seven professional engineering societies banded together to found ABET’s predecessor organization, the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development. Its original focuses included supplying information to engineering students and potential students, developing plans for personal and professional development, appraising engineering curricula and maintaining a list of accredited curricula, and developing methods whereby individuals could achieve recognition by the profession and general public. Eventually this organization began to expand into related areas, including engineering technology and applied science fields.

By the 1980s, the original charges were too large for a single organization to handle, and the body that retained the charge of appraising engineering curricula and maintaining a list of accredited curricula became the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET for short. A few years later, ABET helped establish the Computing Sciences Accreditation Board (now CSAB) and in 2001, CSAB merged with ABET. Today CSAB is one of ABET’s largest member societies, with more than 300 accredited programs.

In 2005, ABET formally changed its name from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology to ABET, Inc. This allowed the organization to continue its activities under a recognized name in accreditation while reflecting its broadening into additional areas of technical education.

What is ABET Accreditation?

ABET accreditation is assurance that each program in applied science, computing, engineering, or technology at a college or university meets the quality standards established by the profession for which it prepares its students. For example, an accredited engineering program must meet the quality standards set by the engineering profession. An accredited computer science program must meet the quality standards set by the computing profession. ABET accredits programs only, not degrees, departments, colleges, or institutions.

The ABET professions themselves set the quality standards that the programs must meet to be ABET-accredited. The professional and technical societies collaborate and work together through ABET to develop the standards, and they provide the professionals who volunteer to evaluate the programs and ensure that they meet those standards.

The first step to ABET accreditation is that an institution requests an evaluation of its program(s). Then, each program conducts an internal evaluation and completes a self-study questionnaire. The self-study documents whether students, curriculum, faculty, administration, facilities, and institutional support meet the established criteria.

While the program conducts its self-examination, ABET forms an evaluation team to visit the campus. A team chair and one or more program evaluators make up the evaluation team. Team members are volunteers from academe, government, and industry, as well as private practice. During the on-campus visit, the evaluation team reviews course materials, student projects, and sample assignments and interviews students, faculty, and administrators. The team investigates whether the criteria are met and tackles any questions not adequately covered in the self-study.

Following the campus visit, the team provides the school with a written report of the evaluation. Then, at a large annual meeting, the final evaluation report is presented by the evaluation team, along with its recommended accreditation actions. Based on the findings of the report, the commission members vote on each action, and the school is notified of the decisions. The information the school receives identifies strengths, concerns, weaknesses, deficiencies, and recommendations for improvements. Accreditation is granted for a maximum of six years. To renew accreditation, the institution must request another evaluation.

Outcomes Assessment and Continuous Improvement

More than a decade ago, ABET adopted Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC2000), considered at the time a revolutionary approach to accreditation criteria. The revolution was its focus on what is learned rather than what is taught. At its core was the call for a continuous improvement process informed by the specific mission and goals of individual institutions and programs. EC2000 meant that ABET could enable program innovation, as well as encourage new assessment processes and subsequent program improvement. Today the spirit of continuous improvement can be found in the evaluation criteria of all ABET disciplines.

How Physics fits into ABET Accreditation

Physics coursework is a requirement for the vast majority of ABET-accredited programs, including engineering, technology, and some applied science fields such as health physics.

Not only is physics considered an important basic science for programs that ABET accredits, but it is also fundamental to the applied topics covered in most programs. For example, engineering programs have traditionally designed their introductory engineering courses around calculus-based physics courses that include significant laboratory experiences.

ABET evaluators look closely at the quality of the physics courses because experience shows that both physics and engineering programs benefit from healthy relationships that engage the basic and applied perspectives. Evaluators usually expect to review course materials and examples of student work for both recitation and laboratory classes. Efforts to maintain active and productive communication among the physics faculties and applied science, engineering, and/or technology faculties pay off on a continuing basis, not just at the time of an accreditation evaluation.

More information about ABET and its accreditation of postsecondary applied science, computing, engineering, and technology programs is available at http://www.abet.org/.

Keryl Cryer is a Communications Specialist and M. Dayne Aldridge is Adjunct Accreditation Director for Engineering at ABET.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.