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Accreditation's new focus on real-world experience makes engineering graduates more employable

Rebecca Gibson
5 August 2020

5 min read

For years, some employers complained that the engineering graduates they hired were not adequately prepared for their post-graduation roles, requiring months or years of expensive on-the-job training before they could make meaningful contributions at work. Colleges and accreditation agencies responded with an increased emphasis on experiential, project-based learning. So, is the transition working? 

If a student graduates from an engineering school and cannot apply the theories they have learned to the job they are hired to do, are they really an engineer?

Over the years, engineering employers worldwide have asked this question with increasing frequency and volume. Why, they wondered, were they forced to invest months or years of additional, expensive training in their new hires? Why weren’t universities teaching their students how to apply the theories and formulas of engineering to the kinds of hands-on work engineers do in the real world?

In response, universities and accreditation agencies took a hard look at what engineering schools were teaching and how they were teaching it. What they discovered has changed accreditation standards and reinvented college curriculums, creating happier customers among both students and employers.

“When we dug deeper into this, we discovered that the most common teaching method – long lectures where a professor talks at a large group of students – was actually highly ineffective,” said Michael Milligan, executive director and CEO of ABET, a nonprofit, non-government organization based in Baltimore, Maryland that was founded in 1932 and accredits applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology programs. “Multiple studies showed that only a small percentage of what most students were learning came from these lectures; they understood and retained more information when they were actively engaged in the learning process.”

Consequently, ABET in 2000 transitioned to accreditation criteria that focused on what “outputs” student engineers were trained to deliver. Rather than tracking how many credit hours a student has completed in a host of required courses, the standards now focus on ensuring that graduates can apply what they have learned. “ABET’s accreditation process led the way in radically transforming how students are taught in the classroom, and now engineering schools that use it are producing more knowledgeable and better-prepared graduates,” Milligan said.

REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE

Dan Walton, a graduate of an accredited mechanical engineering program at the University of Warwick in England, believes that his college-level project experience played a valuable role in helping him secure paid employment immediately after graduation.


Dan Walton, graduate of University of Warwick, England (Image © Dan Walton)

“My post-graduation experiences have shown me that a high caliber graduate is measured by their pragmatic and hands-on approach to problem solving,” Walton said. “Thanks to the practical teaching methods at university, I already had the ability to apply everything I’d learned to real-world examples. I’m now three years into a career at the same firm where I did a voluntary placement during my degree program.”

Grant Saunby, a research engineer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, England, which has an extensive graduate recruitment program, endorses Walton’s perspective. “Accreditation gives companies the confidence that graduates have a fundamental understanding of engineering concepts and that they have been educated to an established standard, which is particularly useful now that there are so many engineering courses,” Saunby said.

KEEPING TRACK OF EDUCATION SUCCESS

Pursuing outcome-based accreditation provides universities with an easy, unbiased way to verify that their teaching methods are – or are not – working well, said Elisabeth Crepon, president of Commission des titres d’ingénieur (CTI), the Paris-based agency responsible for evaluating and accrediting engineering education programs in France. In turn, accreditation reassures graduates and employers that the schools are delivering high-quality education.

“We’ve carried out three “focus” initiatives [one per year between 2016 and 2019], asking engineering schools to submit an analysis on the impact of the way they’re teaching specific aspects of engineering,” Crepon said. “Most said they have prioritized innovation and revised their teaching and evaluation methods with student-oriented approaches like project-based teaching. CTI’s accreditation standards largely contributed to this positive evolution in engineering education.”

Outcome-based accreditation has been particularly effective at helping engineering schools in emerging economies, where pedagogical methods have sometimes lagged behind those in the US and Europe, leaving graduates less prepared for professional engineering careers. Engineering education in India, for example, is making the transition.

“Engineering schools in India often focus on getting good exam results rather than on finding new ways to continually improve their teaching methods,” said R. Hariharan, Advisor-II in the Policy and Academic Planning Bureau for the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), which regulates technical education in India.

“However, striving to meet AICTE outcome-based accreditation criteria – and getting feedback from both us and the industry – has motivated many of them to experiment with new techniques to make their teaching processes more effective and engaging. It’s working because the quality of engineering education and graduates is gradually improving across India. The government has set a target for all engineering schools to achieve accreditation for their programs before 2022.”

INDUSTRY INSIGHTS

Gaining experience with the advanced digital engineering tools used by many employers is an increasingly important part of students’ hands-on training, accreditation experts agree. Digitalization is rapidly changing how the professional engineering industry operates and forcing engineers to continually develop new skills.

ASIIN Group, an accreditation agency based in Dusseldorf, Germany, helps engineering schools keep pace with these changes by involving representatives from professional engineering organizations in the accreditation process, alongside academic partners.

“Accreditation provides a valuable opportunity for engineering schools to seek advice from academic peers and industry-based representatives about how they can improve the way they’re teaching students and preparing them for entering the workforce.”

Iring Wasser, Managing Director, ASIIN Group

“Schools design the content of their own engineering programs, but our accreditation process enables them to ask industry-based representatives whether graduates will be sufficiently well prepared for an engineering career when they complete their courses,” said Iring Wasser, managing director at ASIIN Group. “This makes it much easier for engineering schools to regularly evolve their educational content and teaching methods to align them with current and predicted labor market requirements.”

And, as students work on projects outsourced to their universities by nearby employers, they gain first-hand-experience not only on the types of projects they’re likely to do if hired by that employer, but on the design, simulation and manufacturing applications and processes they are likely to use.

GROWING DEMAND

One testament to accreditation’s power to equip students with skills and competencies that align with the needs of engineering employers can be found in the growing number of engineering schools focused for the first time on securing accreditation.

The Belgium-based organization European Network for the Accreditation of Engineering Education (ENAEE), for example, has approved 15 accreditation agencies to award its EUR-ACE labels to engineering schools across Europe. ENAEE has also been involved in projects to set up agencies that will use EUR-ACE to accredit programs in Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.

“By developing a quality assurance system for engineering education worldwide, we’ll enhance the quality of engineering education and facilitate better academic and professional mobility between countries,” said José Carlos Quadrado, vice president of ENAEE.

A FUTURE VISION

Growing applications of digitalization and artificial intelligence, plus the world’s growing focus on multi-layered challenges that include sustainability and climate change, will keep up the pressure on engineers to become increasingly innovative, CTI’s Crepon predicts.

“Accreditation processes will continue to be key in helping engineering schools to constantly improve the way they teach engineering so they produce graduates who are capable of developing solutions to these challenges when they become professional engineers,” she said.

As the overhaul in how engineering is taught and how engineering programs are accredited demonstrates, there will always be room for improvement.

“We must increase collaboration between the different accreditation alliances to provide even better services for students,” Wasser said. “Plus, we need to keep training our accreditation experts so that we know they’re always asking the right questions and giving appropriate advice. Most accreditation agencies are already doing this well and we’re certainly on the right track to drive innovation in engineering education and create the successful engineers of the future.”

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