The new ABET accreditation for optics/photonics engineering is good news for universities offering such programs as well as for the students who will attend those universities and the companies that will hire them. But by a trickle-down effect, it’s good for the rest of us, too. Raising awareness of optics and photonics as a separate and important engineering discipline can only help those of us who are tired of explaining that “phototronics” (a word often left in my phone messages) in fact does not involve courses in digital photography.
That the effort to develop ABET program criteria for optical and photonics engineering involves both SPIE and IEEE speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of photonic technology. Our students quickly learn that they need to know more than optics to be successful, or even to complete that senior capstone project. Knowledge of electrical, mechanical and manufacturing engineering and even the life sciences is essential for success in optics/photonics, whether as an engineer or technician.
Those of us in technician education at the associate-degree level look forward to ETAC – the Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission of ABET – taking a look at our photonics technician programs for accreditation as well.
– Judy Donnelly, column editor
Accreditation is a win-win-win situation, good for all parties involved, according to Barry Shoop, professor and deputy head of the department of electrical engineering and computer science at the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
Shoop knows what he’s talking about: He represents SPIE on the board of directors for ABET, the nonprofit, nongovern-
mental federation of professional and technical societies. ABET accredits college and university programs in the areas of applied science, computing, engineering and engineering technology.
Accreditation is good for businesses hiring grads, of course. “If you are a corporation and are hiring an engineer or technician, you want some assurance that the education they come with has some standards. You can go very easily and find out what that means,” he said. “With ABET accreditation, [there is a] minimum set of education standards individuals went through to complete their degrees.”
An accredited program is good for students and their parents, he added. “The whole idea is that it basically identifies consistency across programs. Looking at accredited programs verifies that the quality of the program meets the criteria of the profession.”
And it’s good for the academic institutions, too. “The process of accreditation provides the school with benchmarks that must be met,” said Bahaa Saleh, dean and director of CREOL, the College of Optics & Photonics at the University of Central Florida (UCF). “Feedback from the external reviewers will help us improve the program and address any noted deficiency.”
This fall, UCF will welcome the first class of students in its new bachelor of science degree program in photonics science and engineering. The curriculum has been designed to satisfy the requirements of ABET accreditation – and that means the requirements of the industry.
The BS program at UCF joins CREOL’s established master of science and PhD degrees, and is offered jointly by both CREOL and the College of Engineering & Computer Science (CECS). The program will cover geometrical and physical optics, optical materials, and photonic devices and systems.
All BS engineering degrees offered by CECS are accredited, which made it natural to seek accreditation for the new program, Saleh said. “Successful accreditation provides the students and the hiring companies with assurance that the program meets the national standards for an engineering degree in optics and photonics.”
The initial target size for the new class of students is 30, according to Saleh, who expects that number to increase as the program grows.
“The program will help ensure that the US has a chance to participate at all levels in the coming growth in photonics,” said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs when the UCF program was announced in March. “As ABET moves to accredit programs in optics and photonics, UCF, long a leader in technology transfer programs and photonics education, is again showing its innovative drive.
“This timely new undergraduate program reflects the growing awareness of a vital field that has already changed the world in multiple ways.”
“I am personally excited to see this announcement because it serves as another indicator that optical and photonics engineering is finally coming of age as a discipline, providing a distinct program choice and career path for students to follow,” Shoop said.
The road to accreditation
The UCF program announcement provides a good opportunity to examine the work of establishing accreditation criteria for optical and photonics engineering.
The professional and technical societies that ABET comprises – including SPIE and IEEE – are central to the organization’s mission; they contribute money and organize volunteers to establish criteria and review educational programs, ensuring they reflect the needs of their respective industries.
While the IEEE has long been engaged with ABET, SPIE petitioned to become a member of the organization just three years ago, Shoop said.
Before 2010, there were no criteria in place with the ABET program for optics and photonics, but five schools were accredited by ABET under the general criteria, Shoop said. University of Alabama at Huntsville; University of Arizona; University of California, Davis; Norfolk State University; and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind. University of Alabama, Huntsville, was accredited in 1998, the first of the five, for its BSE in optical engineering.
The road to ABET participation began for SPIE in 2004, motivated, Shoop said, by the folks from Rose-Hulman – and it took almost two years from when the SPIE board members said yes to the pursuit of ABET participation to when they petitioned to join. Shoop gives credit to the senior leadership of SPIE at the time for identifying accreditation as a priority for the industry.
“In my mind, it brings optics and photonics engineering of age,” Shoop said.
“The growth and influence of optical and photonics engineering as a discipline warrants increased recognition within both academia and industry,” wrote Shoop and Kathleen B. Robinson – manager of education services for SPIE in Bellingham, Wash. – in a 2012 paper for SPIE’s Optics Education and Outreach II titled “ABET Accreditation and Optics and Photonics Engineering: An Association Whose Time Has Come.”
They went on to say that “the recognition of optics and photonics as a distinct discipline within ABET is the next logical and critical step toward the advancement of the profession.”
Shoop reflected that when SPIE petitioned to join ABET for optical engineering, IEEE was already there, working on engineering accreditation, but he said SPIE was the motivating factor for the optics and photonics program. Today, IEEE and SPIE are co-leads – a first for ABET – for optics and photonics engineering; they represent “the profession, the industry, the institutions and the practitioners,” Shoop said. With leadership in place, the work of establishing criteria began.
Meetings in early 2011 involved a range of activities, including determining the accreditation needs of an optical and photonics engineering program to soliciting volunteers to assist with the development of program-specific criteria and creating a timeline for proposing optics and photonics criteria to ABET.
The process of writing accreditation criteria started with an academic advisory group of 20 individuals. Then, an industry advisory group comprising 15 to 20 corporations both large and small reviewed the criteria the academic group believed would be important and provided their input.
“I really do think it is a positive move for our discipline,” Shoop said. “I think it will raise the awareness of optics and photonics engineering.”
Today, Shoop leads the SPIE/IEEE team to develop ABET program criteria for optical and photonics engineering. He said the professional societies also are responsible for recruiting and training the evaluators and for doing the evaluations. Ultimately, Shoop said, “when a program gets reviewed, a person like me would go and do the ABET review.”
The UCF BS program, opening this fall, is the first to be designed to meet the ABET accreditation criteria and, if the final stages of adoption within ABET go as planned, will be part of the review cycle that will begin in January 2014. Shoop confirmed in May that the criteria committee will re-review (in the context of any public feedback) and approve program-specific criteria; in July, immediately after, the Engineering Accreditation Commission will review and approve it. Then it will come back to the ABET board of directors in October for final approval. If everything goes according to schedule and the board approves the criteria, it will go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.
Eventual graduates of the UCF BS program are likely to be attractive job candidates. “Industry can look at this and be assured of the educational level of the folks they are hiring,” Shoop said.