Inclusion, Diversity Now Factor Into Accreditation Standards

November/December 2019

Communities: Education
Inclusion, Diversity Now Factor Into Accreditation Standards


YVETTE E. PEARSON, PH.D., P.EBeginning with Fall 2019 visits, programs undergoing review by the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) of ABET are required to show compliance with new criteria related to curricula and student outcomes (abilities students are expected to attain by the time they graduate). Many educators are happy to see the number of student outcomes reduced from 11 to seven. However, I am most excited about what is in the student outcomes—more specifically, the increased focus on inclusion.

ABET is never prescriptive about how programs choose to meet its requirements; the review process is designed to ensure programs meet quality standards set forth in the criteria and the Accreditation Policy and Procedure Manual.

Executed well, the recent EAC criteria changes provide a number of opportunities to modify our traditional approaches to educating engineers so they are not only aware of the need to practice engineering in an inclusive manner but also are equipped to do so.

Among the seven ABET-EAC student outcomes are requirements that students demonstrate

  • an ability to identify, formulate, and solve complex engineering problems by applying principles of engineering, science, and mathematics;
  • an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors;
  • an ability to communicate effectively with a range of audiences;
  • an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts; and
  • an ability to function effectively on a team whose members together provide leadership, create a collaborative and inclusive environment, establish goals, plan tasks, and meet objectives.

Based on my six years of experience as an ABET-EAC program evaluator, my analysis of these changes and the opportunities they present for ubiquitous inclusion follows.

Changes and Opportunities


Complex engineering problems are defined by ABET-EAC based on their exhibition of one or more characteristics, such as “having no obvious solution,” which is consistent with the traditional interpretation of open-ended engineering problems.

However, the definition is expanded further to include “involving diverse groups of stakeholders” as one of the possible characteristics, prompting consideration of how engineering problem-solving impacts socioeconomically, culturally, and otherwise diverse communities and highlighting the need to include people from those communities and those who have different perspectives in the process. This aligns well with principles of user-centered design—designing with, not just for, people.

In addition, the engineering design requirement has been retooled to offer a more humanitarian focus. Example design constraints have been expanded to include accessibility, usability, interoperability, and ergonomics—all of which are aligned with principles of universal design, which are predicated on usability by a wide range of people.

Prior to 2019, the requirement was for students to be able to “communicate effectively.” The requirement now is that students can “communicate effectively with a range of audiences.” This addition emphasizes that not all communication is with technical audiences. It is up to each program to define the range of audience appropriate for its students. For example, for civil engineering, audiences might include community members, contractors, faculty, and other students (e.g., conference attendees). Communication with each of those audiences requires different strategies and approaches that must be taught to students.

Since 2014, there has been increased awareness of and action toward addressing diversity and inclusion as an ethical matter in engineering practice. Engineering societies such as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and IEEE have amended their codes of ethics to incorporate language that requires fair and equal treatment of everyone regardless of identity and denounces behaviors that are discriminatory and/or harassing. In 2019, NSPE became the most recent to incorporate diversity into its code of ethics.

In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers modified its code with language similar to what was included in other societies’ codes; however, ASCE went a step further to require that engineers “consider the diversity of the community, and…endeavor in good faith to include diverse perspectives in the planning and performance of their professional services.” This harkens back to designing with, not just for, communities, as well as employing principles of universal design.

Related is the importance of having diverse teams and ensuring they are inclusive in the way they work. ABET-EAC defines a team as “more than one person working toward a common goal [that] should include individuals of diverse backgrounds, skills, or perspectives.” Prior to 2019, the only diversity required on teams was disciplinary. Building and assessing teams under the new requirements reinforces to students the importance of inclusive teams and the need to value diverse perspectives.

Recommendations for Faculty 
and Administrators

  • If you are not aware of or well-versed in matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion, take advantage of professional development opportunities to learn—then apply—best practices.
  • Apply principles of universal design for learning to teaching and assessment to ensure your courses are accessible to a broad spectrum of students.
  • Incorporate principles of universal design and user-centered design into engineering courses and assess students’ abilities to design using these principles.
  • Engage with industry and professional societies to better understand the need and expectations for diversity, equity, and inclusion in engineering practice.
  • Think critically about the “range of audience” with whom graduates from your program might have to communicate (orally, in writing, and by listening) across multiple workforce pathways they may pursue. Provide opportunities for them to engage with those audiences and have those people evaluate the effectiveness of the students’ communication as a part of your assessment.
  • Update your ethics lessons to ensure they reflect the most recent engineering society codes of ethics, and incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion in your teaching and assessments. If needed, engage a faculty member from another unit on campus (e.g., social sciences, political sciences) to help with this.
  • Make sure diversity is present among your students, faculty, and technical staff and not just among your nontechnical staff; and move beyond a “checklist” approach to diversity (i.e., simply counting demographics), ensuring your academic climate and culture are conducive to everyone’s success (faculty, staff, and students from all identities).
  • Teach by setting a good example.

Inclusion strategist Verna Myers is quoted as saying, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Speaker, consultant, and trainer Daniel Juday recognized this statement as helpful in distinguishing the two terms, which are frequently—and improperly—used interchangeably, and offered this augmentation: “Diversity is going to a party; inclusion is being a member of the party-planning committee.”

I believe we can achieve ubiquitous inclusion if we work together to make sure our engineering programs and work environments are places where everyone is welcomed “at the table” and the unique perspectives each of us brings based on our backgrounds, skills, and experiences are heard, respected, valued, and included.

Yvette E. Pearson, Ph.D., P.E., is associate dean for accreditation, assessment, and strategic initiatives in the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University. She chairs MOSAIC, ASCE’s board-level council on diversity, equity, and inclusion; is founder of The Pearson Evaluation and Education Research (PEER) Group; and is a program evaluator for ABET-EAC. Pearson is the 2019 recipient of ABET’s Claire L. Felbinger Award for Diversity and Inclusion.

NSPE on Diversity and Inclusion

According to NSPE’s Code of Ethics (Section III, Professional Obligations), “Engineers shall be guided in all their relations by the highest standards of honesty and integrity…. Engineers shall treat all persons with dignity, respect, fairness and without discrimination.”

NSPE’s Professional Policy No. 01, adopted in July 2017, states that, “It is the policy of NSPE to create a diverse and welcoming environment for everyone interested in the licensed practice of engineering. NSPE recognizes the benefits of a diverse population of licensed engineers in shaping the future of engineering. Diverse backgrounds foster unique contributions and capabilities and create an inclusive community ultimately leading to a more creative, effective and technically respected community. NSPE proactively encourages diversity in all areas of the engineering profession and within the organization. NSPE’s business entities and volunteer groups are committed to developing business practices and position statements in support of this policy.”