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MU computer science program earns ABET accreditation

Ryan Hinkle assembles the wiring for the servomechanism on a device meant to track a person’s head movement in order to direct specific sound tracking at that person. This is Hinkle’s capstone design project, the class for which was recently changed into a two-semester sequence course. This was one of the changes that reflectively positively on the Computer Science department upon receiving results from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. This is the first time the department has achieved ABET accreditation.

After six years of dedicated preparation, the University of Missouri’s computer science program learned in August it had earned accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. ABET is this country’s leading agency to sanction post-secondary education programs in applied science, computing, engineering and engineering technology.

ABET’s nod to the computer science program brought it in line with the College of Engineering’s other degree programs, all of which are ABET-accredited.

“We looked into it and decided it would be best for our students,” said computer science Associate Professor Michael Jurczyk, adding that he believes only about 30 percent of all computer science programs nationwide have attained ABET accreditation.

In order to be accredited, Jurczyk said that ABET requires programs to have firm student outcomes in place that outline the knowledge students should have when they graduate. Educational objectives describe what graduates are expected to attain within a few years of graduation.

In order to retain accreditation, the department must use well-defined processes to periodically assess and evaluate each student outcome and educational objective. Regular self-evaluation results in continuous improvement of the program.

ABET evaluations occur every six years unless there are areas of weakness or concern, in which case they may grant conditional accreditation and re-examine the program sooner. Faculty in the Computer Science Department decided six years ago — immediately after ABET reviewed engineering’s other programs  — that they would pursue a nod from ABET, and immediately began to work toward the goal. A year before the ABET team visited, the department staged a mock visit— a sort of test run — and responded to the findings.

As the director of computer science undergraduate studies, Jurczyk was the obvious choice to coordinate the effort.

“Seeking accreditation forced us to look at our overall curriculum and the flow of it. We had never before done that in a systematic fashion. For example, we discovered that by re-distributing course material in our algorithm design course sequence, a smoother transition between those courses could be achieved, resulting in better student performance,” said Jurczyk.

“I’m responsible for overall data collection every semester. Our undergraduate committee then evaluates the data and comes up with program improvement suggestions, which are discussed and voted on by all faculty. For the ABET accreditation, everyone in the department had a stake in the process. It was a real team effort.”

Jurczyk stressed that every college’s computer science program is different, so ABET’s focus is on outcomes in broad areas such as computing, teamwork, and communication skills.

“We have to design the curriculum to meet those outcomes and then prove that our students have that knowledge,” he said, adding the department had significantly modified the curriculum.

“For example,” he said, “we designated four of our required courses as teamwork intensive, in which rubrics for attendance and contributions are used and evaluation of student performance includes an anonymous peer evaluation”.

Another change to the overall program was in the department’s capstone program.

“We looked at our curriculum and decided that students could benefit from working on a larger scale programming project,” Jurczyk said. “It’s one of the skills employers are looking for. We decided to change the one-semester capstone class into a two-semester sequence in which students have more time to work on larger-scale projects.

“We also had to ask employers how well our graduates perform in their jobs compared to others,” said Jurczyk. “We always have great response from employers about our students.”

The accreditation team arrives on a Sunday to go over all of the materials departments must assemble for their review, including a detailed profile of each class being taught, including student work, homework, quizzes and lab work. Prior to that, they have reviewed the report the department submitted, which in the case of MU computer science, exceeded 300 pages.

On Monday, the review team interviews faculty and students, asking questions specific to the report and materials they have been furnished.

“They also met with students in a senior-level class without any faculty present. They wanted to have a frank discussion about the courses and the program,” Jurczyk said.

The accreditation team writes an interim report on Tuesday, which is shared with the dean of the college and the MU provost.

“It was very positive. They were totally impressed with our program and our students ,” said Jurczyk.

ABET reviewers take a look at their team’s findings and, as a body, vote on whether or not reviewed programs are worthy of accreditation.

MU’s Computer Science Department learned in August that it had become an ABET accredited program, and faculty are already preparing for review in 2017.

“This is a major milestone of the department,” said Dong Xu, the James C. Dowell Professor and chairman of computer science. “The ABET evaluation reports that we have a strong program, high-quality faculty, friendly environment and excellent students. For a first-time accreditation effort like ours, such a clean success is relatively rare.”

“ABET wants to see that we continue to assess our program to identify weaknesses, put improvements into place and prove that they are effective,” Jurczyk said.

Besides working to maintain its newly acquired credentials, the department is looking toward accreditation of the IT program, which operates within computer science.

“While the ABET process involved tremendous effort in the department, it was really worthwhile. The accreditation adds great value for the program and our students, and the process is also an excellent tool to help improve our academic program,” Xu said.



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