Among the many effects of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, it has reinforced the importance of keeping workers safe. Industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals play a vital role in ensuring employee wellbeing in the workplace.
But how do we know professionals and new graduates of programs in these areas are prepared to take on these challenges? As an organization dedicated to quality assurance in STEM education, ABET accreditation provides confidence that higher education programs meet the quality standards that produce graduates prepared to enter a global workforce.
Input from industry experts
ABET serves the interest of its 36 member societies, including The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP). These technical and professional societies set policy, develop strategy and conduct accreditation activities worldwide on behalf of their professions. They also define the specific program criteria in their areas of expertise.
Accreditation is about continuous improvement, focusing on what students learn and experience. The Academic Accreditation Committee of the AIHA determines specific topics programs in Industrial Hygiene (IH) must ensure their students learn. IH academic professionals and practitioners review the programs and apply the IH criteria topics. For environmental health and safety, AIHA partners with the ASSP, and for Health Physics programs, AIHA partners with the Health Physics Society.
ABET engages with industry through its professional societies and Industry Advisory Council, among other channels. Industry experts make up a significant portion of the pool for Program Evaluators and Team Chairs, the volunteers who lead program accreditation visits. Being able to influence program criteria — and, ultimately, students’ educational experiences and readiness to enter the workforce — was exactly why Bret Clausen, former Global Director of Health and Safety Talent and Technical Services for CH2M, wanted to get involved with ABET accreditation. A former ABET board member, he has been a hiring manager for most of his career, hiring both entry-level and experienced professionals in industrial hygiene and safety. “The more I was doing it, the more I was getting frustrated because there was such a variability in the fundamental quality of graduates,” Clausen said in a recent ABET issue brief. “Just because they came out of a reputable program doesn’t mean they had that same baseline of capability. I wanted to have the opportunity to work with the professional organizations and with ABET to make sure we were keeping an eye to the future.”
Central to ABET’s Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) process is a requirement that programs solicit feedback from the program’s various constituencies, which include local employers through Industry Advisory Boards (IAB). Industry leaders are also members of ABET governance, having seats of the Board of Directors and Board of Delegates.
Alice Greife, Dean of the College of Health, Science and Technology at the University of Central Missouri and chair of ABET’s Applied and Natural Science Accreditation Commission, shared her thoughts on the importance of industry stakeholders in the issue brief. She teaches graduate courses in toxicology and epidemiology in an ABET-accredited master of science program in industrial hygiene. At her institution, feedback from the industrial advisory board has led to more coursework in basic programming in computer science and a new cybersecurity degree program. “In the industrial hygiene program, we were told by our advisory board that our students didn’t have enough exposure to physical agents and so we created more laboratory experiences working with physical agents,” Greife explained.
Not only does regular feedback from industry help inform the STEM curriculum, ABET also shares insights and updates to industry representatives on what’s happening in STEM programs and the role of accreditation in producing quality graduates.
Benefits of accreditation
Employers are more confident in their decisions when hiring students who graduate from ABET-accredited industrial hygiene programs, because accreditation provides quality assurance through independent, third-party review. ABET also helps establish a recruitment pipeline of graduates with the skills necessary to meet market demands in a global workforce. Other benefits of having students graduate from an accredited program include:
- Employability and international mobility
- Meeting military requirements
- Best practices and professional development for faculty
- Assurance for employers
- Institutional support
Challenges and opportunities in evolving fields
For over 80 years, ABET has been committed to continuous improvement to assure confidence in quality STEM programs. Some hiring managers turn to ABET-accredited programs because they know they will have certain skills based on student outcomes. Input from industry experts, as well as academia and government, is crucial, as rapidly changing technology impacts both classrooms and workplaces.
Drawing on the expertise of representatives of both academia and industry, ABET ensures that IH programs continue to adapt to evolving industry demands; that students are equipped with the knowledge, skills and aptitudes required by a global economy; and that companies operating in the STEM sectors can have confidence in the programs from which their employees graduate.