Lessons learned from volunteering

October 4th, 2011 // 5:54 am @ eileenwebb

Last month I visited Bogota, Columbia, as part of a team of ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) volunteers evaluating engineering programs at the Universidad de los Andes.  This was my eighth year as an ABET volunteer (including the first as an observer for training,) but the first time I had evaluated a program outside the United States.

I was a bit apprehensive about going to Columbia, and while it was clear from reading the government website that things were a lot better than a few years ago, there was still a long list of “what not to do’s.”  After some soul searching, I accepted the opportunity, became a human pin-cushion (lots of CDC recommended immunizations) and began the process of evaluating the program.

The evaluation criteria is comprehensive with some things very specific to engineering education like basic science and engineering coursework, faculty, facilities, and institutional support. But some of the requirements apply whether you are a company or a university:  identify the stakeholders and customers, get their input into the requirements (in this case – what alumni should be able to do after a few years of experience), measure the results, and take actions to improve over time.

Computers are an even bigger part of engineering and engineering education than they were when I was a student in the eighties, but other than that many chemical engineering curriculums are remarkably similar to each other and the curriculum I studied.  As I evaluated the program, I found myself admiring some of the differences I found.  For example, as a student I often took a classroom engineering course six months or a year before the hands on lab related to it.  I got lots of A’s and B’s in the classroom courses, but often didn’t completely master the concepts until I took the labs.  This program has folded the labs into many of the engineering courses and plans to convert most of the rest over the next year. 

As a new engineer, I found that most real life problems were open ended and tackled by a team of people.  My traditional engineering education gave me both kinds of experience in my final design project and earlier labs but this program had all that plus open ended projects in the in the first and third years, too.  The traditional methods do produce good engineers (including me) but fortunately the criteria allows for flexibility so individual programs can make these kinds of enhancements. 

As ABET volunteers, we work hard to evaluate according to the criteria, not personal preference and to be consistent across programs.  I’ve been privileged to get to know many fine people over the years. If I could change one thing, it would be to recruit more people from industry and government to be program evaluators and industrial advisory board members.  So consider yourself personally invited to get involved.  And don’t assume you are off the hook just because you aren’t an engineer – there are plenty of opportunities to make a difference.  

As for Bogota itself, I found the people friendly, the food yummy, the sights beautiful, and the economy booming.  I came home with post cards, trinkets including a pendant with small green stone that is probably a not very good emerald and some very nice leather goods and coffee.  But more important are the new relationships, great memories and the satisfaction of contributing to the future of the engineering profession and the world.

Category : Blog

One Comment → “Lessons learned from volunteering”

  1. Wlliam Roger

    7 years ago

    A Nice Article, What a wonderful learning experience both professionally and personal.


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