Chemical Engineering at Caltech will no longer pursue ABET accreditation
The undergraduate program in Chemical Engineering at Caltech is widely regarded as one of the most rigorous in the world. In our efforts to maintain that rigor in light of the rapid pace of change in this discipline, Caltech's Chemical Engineering faculty have concluded that the process of engineering accreditation by ABET limits our ability to offer the best possible education to Caltech's remarkable cadre of students. Consequently, we will not pursue continued ABET accreditation.
We do not take this step lightly. Accreditation plays an important role in assuring that we are preparing our students for their further graduate education and careers. One of the unique strengths of Caltech undergraduate education that has been cited in the overall accreditation of Caltech by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) is the opportunity to pursue relevant elective courses or independent research. The flexibility gained through this action, while continuing to maintain the essential Chemical Engineering curriculum, will increase this ability for Chemical Engineering students at Caltech.
In Caltech's Chemical Engineering program, students pursue studies in traditional chemical process systems, as well as on biomolecular, environmental, and materials engineering. In our senior design courses, students undertake projects beyond the singular focus on large-scale chemical processes that was the mainstay of chemical engineering education in years past. These design projects range from the myriad applications of random mutagenesis, to the design of new polymers and of instruments, sensors, and micro-scale chemical processes, among many others.
These opportunities have allowed Caltech's exceptional Chemical Engineering graduates to achieve great success. Over the past 20 years, nearly two-thirds have gone on to graduate study, while others have been highly successful in diverse industries.
At the same time, however, the restrictions and requirements imposed by ABET criteria and examiners have led to an excessively structured curriculum—one that our students and alumni have found to limit their opportunities to take full advantage of Caltech, both in research and in pursuing course offerings beyond the requirements.
Prior to 2000, ABET specified the subject matter that must be taught in the various engineering disciplines. A revision of the accreditation criteria known as Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC2000) replaced subject matter specifications with student learning objectives in order to accommodate evolving disciplines.
Unfortunately, the reality of ABET evaluation by a single examiner does not, in many cases, achieve that admirable goal, as examiners tend to impose their own personal, and sometimes narrow, definitions of "engineering." ABET examiners have consistently challenged the engineering content of courses that we feel are critical to the education of Caltech students. For example, our applied and computational mathematics course, which students view as critical preparation for their upper-level engineering courses, has repeatedly been declared by ABET's chemical engineering examiners as lacking engineering content, often in contradiction to ABET examiners for other engineering disciplines at Caltech who fully accept it. Other courses that teach methods for design and control of biomolecular processes have been excluded as engineering courses because they lack an "engineering" label.
In sum, to satisfy the narrow definition of engineering subjects that, visit after visit, has been imposed by ABET examiners, we have been forced to limit the exposure to key topics in the chemical engineering of the future, which runs counter to the educational objectives of our program.
After much soul-searching, we have concluded that continued participation in ABET is not in the best educational and future interests of Caltech's Chemical Engineering undergraduates.
Caltech Chemical Engineering Faculty September 27, 2017
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, CA 91125