Apples, Bananas, and Cherries and ABET

Fruit is the edible reproductive body of a seed plant. It comes in many shapes, colors, and sizes with different tastes, textures, and smells. No two fruits are exactly alike. We can think of the ABCs of the fruit world as apples, bananas, and cherries. The generic word for this large variety of edible food is “fruit”!

Wikipedia defines “geomatics” or “surveying” as the discipline of gathering, storing, processing, and delivering of geographic information or spatially referenced information. In the engineering and surveying world, college programs are evaluated by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) through three of its four commissions. ABET accreditation can be thought of as the fruit of the geomatics evaluation process.

Originally ABET had only the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC), and geomatics or surveying programs were evaluated and approved under the engineering guidelines. Later, the Technology Accreditation Commission (TAC) was created to ensure that technician programs would contain more hands-on materials and hence follow a different set of criteria than EAC, as technicians are trained to assist the professional engineers and surveyors whose programs are evaluated under the engineering guidelines.  The lead society for surveying was the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE), and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) was the cooperating secondary society.

For programs that lie between engineering and science, such as environmental, health and safety, health physics, and industrial hygiene, the Applied Science Accreditation Commission (ASAC) was created. Surveying was also included in this commission. ACSM became the lead society for all ABET surveying commissions, and ASCE became the cooperating society. No attempt was made to define different levels of surveying education for the professional, the technician, and other people interested in point positioning.

Here the fruit alphabet analogy applied to geomatics falls apart. How can there be three commissions with different goals and one definition for geomatics or surveying? Fruit is the general name, but apples, bananas, and cherries all have different characteristics.

ABET Program Differences

The general criteria for ABET/EAC curriculum contains a professional component which must include:
  • one year of a combination of college-level mathematics and basic sciences,
  • one and a one-half years of engineering topics consisting of engineering sciences and engineering design, and
  • a general education component that compliments the technical content of the curriculum.
These criteria constitute three of the four years required for an undergraduate degree.

The “program criteria” for surveying, geomatics, and similarly named programs that are formulated by ACSM call for a demonstration that graduates have competency in one or more of the following areas: boundary and/or land surveying, geographic and/or land information systems, photogrammetry, mapping, geodesy, remote sensing, and other related areas. Nothing in these criteria outlines the course breakdown for the one year of math and science or the one-and-a-half-year requirement for engineering science and design. Clearly these criteria could be expanded upon by ASCE, the cooperating society that has spelled out requirements for civil engineering.

The general criteria for ABET/ASAC contains a curriculum that must include:
  • a combination of college-level mathematics and basic sciences appropriate to the discipline,
  • applied science topics appropriate to the program, and
  • a general education component that complements the technical content of  the curriculum.
The “program criteria” for surveying and geomatics and science programs are basically the same curriculum statement that exists for the ABET/EAC programs that asks for proficiency in one or more of the surveying sub-disciplines. A comparison with the EAC criteria shows less-defined rigor in the study of mathematics and science. This commission appeals to groups that are less oriented to engineering and more to science. Is surveying engineering or science? Can it be both?

The general criteria for ABET/TAC curriculum are well thought-out and attempt to provide an experience that develops the ability to apply pertinent knowledge to solving problems in the engineering technology specialty. The baccalaureate programs must contain at least 86 quarter hours of credit with emphasis on communication, mathematics, physical and natural science, social sciences, and humanities and technical content.

Although last on the list, the technical content must represent at least one-third and no more than two-thirds the total credit hours in the program. It must develop the skills, knowledge, method of procedure and techniques associated with the technical discipline. These are the hands-on experiences that define the role of the technician, but reinforced with mathematics at the integral and differential calculus level.

The “program criteria” for surveying, etc. is lengthy and detailed and states that the graduate should be prepared to design and select appropriate measurement systems, analyze positional accuracy, prepare land records, and manage surveying/geomatics activities. If all commissions have similar surveying course requirements and nothing else is considered, then we are all technicians!

Professional Surveyor

Passing the registration examination in land surveying allows a person to announce to the general public that he/she is a professional surveyor and that the state has checked that he/she is competent to practice surveying. This is one use of the word “professional.” In the broad use of the word we have professional sports players as well as learned professionals in law, medicine, engineering, and surveying. A characteristic of the learned professions is a distinct education in a field of knowledge and a broad or liberal training in science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences.

The ABET surveying curriculums provide the detailed technical training.  It is the sum of the “other” courses that provide the breath in the liberal training. The ABET/TAC curriculum spells out that one-third to two-thirds of the program must be technical training, thereby leaving little room for the other liberal courses. Based on the amount of course work devoted to practice, the ABET/TAC criteria create a technician.

The ABET/ASAC curriculum is based on surveying being an applied science, and the requirements for mathematics and science are less than those expected in the ABET/EAC curriculum. In the medical profession this might be equivalent to the nursing profession. If surveying is engineering, then the ABET/EAC curriculum as written will provide more of the liberal training than ABET/ASAC, and hence the analogy to the medical profession would make this graduate the doctor.

To focus strictly at the surveying technical work is to exclude the liberal training so necessary for the development of the “true” professional, who has been identified by his peers as someone who puts service to humanity ahead of money. There are lots of professional surveyors out there who have no formal education but who are true professionals because their peers hold them in high esteem.

The ABCs of fruit are apples, bananas, and cherries. Each has its own identity, but all are fruit. ABET has three commissions that contain three unique surveying flavors, and they should be identified as being different. One place where this differentiation should be made is in the introductory surveying course where the surveying students are just being introduced to their particular curriculum. No student graduating from college should have any doubt about what he or she has just finished studying and where he or she will fit in the big picture of professional aspirations.

About the Author

  • Robert J. Schultz, PE, PLS
    Robert J. Schultz, PE, PLS
    Robert Schultz is a professor of civil, construction, and environmental engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, where he teaches surveying courses. He is also a contributing writer for the magazine.

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