Engineering Technologists and Engineers – What is the Difference?

This is the second in a series of articles about the licensure of engineering technologists in the U.S. Thefirst articledescribed the current status of licensure of technologists as professional engineers and indicated that some 17 jurisdictions do not provide a pathway for technologists to become licensed, while the balance of the jurisdictions do, generally requiring additional years of engineering experience, averaging about six years. Licensure as a professional engineer requires a technologist to pass both the FE and PE examinations, which address a technical engineering body of knowledge, and not necessarily an engineering technology body of knowledge. This article will describe the differences between educational accreditation criteria and typical curricula for engineers and technologists. This discussion of engineering technology is limited to accredited four-year degrees in engineering technology, not two-year technology degrees by which technicians are educated.

There is a huge difference in the number of graduates annually. Data presented on the American Society for Engineering Education Web site indicate that there were about 6,400 baccalaureate degrees awarded in 2012 in engineering technology in the U.S. This compares to over 88,000 baccalaureate degrees in engineering awarded in 2012, an all-time high.

Engineering and Engineering Technology Accreditation Criteria
ABET accreditation criteria are prescribed by means of “general criteria” that apply to all disciplines and “program criteria” that are established and apply to each specific discipline. For engineering, the accreditation criteria are those of the ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC), and, for engineering technology, the criteria for the ABET Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission (ETAC) apply. The differences between the general criteria are subtle but significant, summarized in the following fashion. These are examples; refer to the ABET criteria at the links above to fully understand the differences.


Item
Engineering
ABET EAC General Criteria
Engineering Technology
ABET ETAC General Criteria
Mathematics
Mathematics as specified in Program Criteria-see tables below
Calculus, or other mathematics above algebra/trigonometry
Science
Basic biology, chemistry, and physics applicable to discipline
Physical or natural science
Engineering Sciences
Broadly described bridge from science to engineering
Applied science/engineering
Design
Design systems/components in broad societal context
Design systems/components to solve technology problems
Experiments
Design/conduct experiments and analyze/interpret data
Conduct tests/experiments and analyze/apply results

Next, let’s consider the differences in program criteria for two selected sub-disciplines: electrical and civil engineering and engineering technology.

Electrical Engineering and Electrical Engineering Technology Program Requirements
Item
Electrical Engineering Program Criteria
Electrical Technology Program Criteria
Mathematics
Calculus, statistics, linear algebra, complex variables, discrete math
Above algebra/trigonometry with some advanced math
Design
Analyze and design complex systems
Analyze, design, develop and implement systems
Technical Breadth
Breadth AND Depth
Breadth OR Depth
Civil Engineering and Civil Engineering Technology Program Requirements
Item
CivilEngineering Program Criteria
Civil Engineering Technology Program Criteria
Mathematics
Math through calculus/differential equations
Calculus or other math
Objective
Apply math, science, and engineering science to solve engineering problems
Technical skill to design systems
Breadth
Knowledge in four technical areas
Standard design capability in three sub-disciplines
Design
Design systems in more than one technical area
Design systems, specify methods/materials, estimate costs
Professional Practice
Management, public policy, leadership
Not specified

Engineering and Engineering Technology Curricula
According to data presented on the ASEE website, Purdue University graduates the greatest number of technologists in the US each year. Presented below is a very brief summary of the sample 2012-13 plan of study for electrical engineering, and for electrical engineering technology, from the Purdue University website. The major components of the typical curriculum are as follows:

Purdue University – 2012-13 Electrical Engineering Plan of Study
Math – Calculus I and II, multivariate calculus, differential equations, linear algebra and probabilistic methods
Science – Chemistry, Physics/Mechanics, Physics Elect/Magn Interactions, Science Elective
Engineering Science – Linear circuits I and II, introduction to electronics, electric and magnetic fields
Design – 10 design courses and electives

Purdue University – 2012-13 Electrical Engineering Technology Plan of Study
Math – Calculus for Technology I and II, Statistics
Science – General Physics I and II, electives
Technology and Design – 18 courses in various aspects of technology and design

The electrical engineering and electrical technology program curricula at Purdue clearly show the difference. The engineering program provides a substantially greater math background, more science, a background in engineering science and engineering design. The electrical technology program provides a much more basic background in math and science, without substantial engineering science, and with extensive technology and design content. Engineers generally are trained to analytically apply the theory and practical applications of math, science, and engineering science to design while engineering technologists are trained to apply technologies to design in what some have described as a hands-on fashion.

Both the accreditation criteria and the typical curricula cited above prescribe very different “bodies of knowledge” imparted in engineering and engineering technology education. Engineering education includes a significantly more extensive background in both mathematics and the sciences, which leads to a foundational background in engineering science. Design capability is then built on that math/science/engineering science foundation. Engineering technologists develop a basic understanding of math and science, and learn applied science and engineering built on a different foundation.

It is interesting to note that the ABET program criteria for civil engineering technology states as an objective that baccalaureate degree programs prepare graduates “to analyze and design systems, specify project methods and materials, perform cost estimates and analyses and manage technical activities in support of civil engineering projects.” In our licensure system in the U.S., each of those activities, when potentially impacting public health, safety, and welfare, need to be under the responsible charge of a licensed professional engineer, and those designs and specifications need to be stamped by a professional engineer. In one-third of the states, there is no pathway for technologists to be licensed as professional engineers. In the other two-thirds of states, technologists are required to pass the Fundamentals of EngineeringExamination, which assesses the engineering body of knowledge, and not the very different engineering technology body of knowledge, and additional years of engineering experience are required for technologists in many states. Those who review FE exam institution reports provided to technology programs indicate that the pass rate for engineering technologists on the FE exam is typically substantially lower on a national basis than the national pass rate for EAC-accredited engineering program graduates. This would be expected because the typical engineering technology education does not cover a fair amount of the FE exam content.

This begs two questions. First, is the current system appropriate? In order to become licensed, technologists are required to pass a fundamentals examination with content that was not included in their education in many technology programs. Those engineering technologists who can pass the two examinations work as professional engineers, and those who cannot, likely work as technicians. And secondly, is this a problem? I don’t know the answer to this second question. Is it a problem for technologists or employers that technologists can’t get licensed as PEs in one-third of states, and is passing the FE examination by technologists too formidable a hurdle in the other two-thirds of states? These two-thirds of states have determined that those technologists who do pass both exams, perhaps with a few more years of engineering experience for good measure, are qualified to practice as professional engineers. Is that a problem?

A subsequent article on this topic will address what is being done in some other countries with respect to licensure of technologists separate from licensure of engineers. Should we continue to license some engineering technologists as professional engineers, or does the licensure of engineering technologists merit consideration? The more I consider this topic, the more ambivalent I have come as to whether there is a sufficient problem here to consider change. Is there a problem?

Input for this article was received from: L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE; Bernard R. Berson, P.E., F.NSPE; Carmine C. Balascio, Ph.D., P.E.; Michael A. Clark, CAE; and Jon D. Nelson, P.E., Dist.M.ASCE.

Published August 15, 2013 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE

Filed under: Engineering Technologists, ABET Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission, licensure of technologists as professional engineers, ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission,

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