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 July 2005 Standards in Education
Daniel Schultz is a staff manager in the Technical Committee Operations Division at ASTM International. He graduated in 1996 from Villanova University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and completed his master’s degree in engineering management from Drexel University in 2005. Schultz joined ASTM in 1998.
Obtaining ASTM standards for classroom work is as easy as contacting ASTM International in advance of needing them.

Direct inquiries to John Pace (phone: 610/832-9632), to make arrangements for classroom distribution of ASTM standards.

Standards in the Classroom

I recently spoke at an American National Standards Institute conference on “Standards and Conformity Assessment in Design — The value of incorporating standards into engineering education programs based on the role of standards in product design.” It encouraged me to reflect on the role of standards in my education in engineering and management. While introducing standards to students in the classroom is becoming more common, standards could, and should, play a more prominent role in an engineering education. I took the opportunity to ask a few students if they had exposure to standards in their undergraduate educations. Most did not have much exposure. But some responses, combined with other research, lead me to believe there are easy-to-apply, informal approaches to introducing standards in engineering education.

Why Standards in the Classroom?

ASTM fellow Michael Jenkins, in an article for the September 1999 issue of SN, put it well: “Standards and codes are consensus documents that allow engineers to implement engineering principles for the solution of societal problems consistently, safely, economically and efficiently. Thus, the constraints of standards and codes do not hinder students, but instead help define practical limits on their designs.” (1) Introducing standards in the classroom will augment the learning experience by pointing students to available design and marketing tools, and best industry practices. Student knowledge of standards facilitates the transition from classroom to workplace by aligning educational concepts with real-world applications and market issues.

At a fundamental level, engineering deals with standards as a baseline for safety and integrity in design. To investigate just how “fundamental” they are from an educational perspective, I opened my college text on reinforced concrete design. I only leafed through 18 of 650 pages when it introduced the grades of reinforcing steel, and referenced ASTM standards A 615, Specification for Deformed and Plain Billet-Steel Bars for Concrete Reinforcement; A 616, Specification for Rail-Steel Deformed and Plain Bars for Concrete Reinforcement (since withdrawn); A 617, Specification for Axle-Steel Deformed and Plain Bars for Concrete Reinforcement (since withdrawn); and A 706, Specification for Low-Alloy Steel Deformed and Plain Bars for Concrete Reinforcement (Figure 1). Commentary followed regarding what designers could expect to see in the demand for materials they utilize.

In this example, these standards are the industry references providing design dimensions for calculation. I saw the same type of reference to standards in my soil mechanics text, among others (Figure 2). The reference to standards in collegiate texts indicates that standards are fundamental in learning applied engineering design — and this introduction sets the stage for professors to easily insert additional information on standards.

Getting Standards into the Classroom

As of 2000, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology made student awareness of standards a mandatory component of the accreditation of engineering curricula. In Section 4 of ABET’s accreditation criteria, Professional Component, it states: “Students must be prepared for engineering practice through the curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier course work and incorporating appropriate engineering standards and multiple realistic constraints” (italics mine).

When I asked students about their exposure to standards, a few noted that teachers substituted ASTM International standards for laboratory methods. Interactive activities are hands-on opportunities to bring standards into the curriculum. For example, instead of simply running a mechanical testing experiment, Jenkins (quoted earlier) writes that his students run mechanical testing labs according to ASTM E 8, Test Methods for Tension Testing of Metallic Materials, or E 18, Test Methods for Rockwell Hardness and Rockwell Superficial Hardness of Metallic Materials, among others. (1) Further, showing students regulations or specifications requiring the standards they are applying helps draw the connection that the exercise is actually an industry practice (Figure 3).
Some universities have co-op and internship programs that are closely monitored. Professors could make standards part of student reporting on work experience. One prominent ASTM member, Donald Marlowe, past chairman of the ASTM board and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s standards coordinator, noted in an e-mail to me that standards-related activities were a cornerstone of his undergraduate internship experience:

When I was an undergrad at Catholic University, I worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (then the National Bureau of Standards) as a summer intern. During my first summer assignment, I was assigned the task of learning how to perform a tensile test on metallic samples. I was directed to look at the ASTM “Book of Standards” for guidance and to come back when I had a stress-strain curve to talk about. I was expected to design the test, run the experiment and process the data into stress-strain curves. I was directed to withdraw the metal sample from stores, develop the drawings for the sample, submit them to the shop, and get trained on the use of the testing machine and extensometers, etc.

After about two weeks, including at least two cycles past the shop machinist with my specimen drawing, and two passes through the graphics office with my data, I was able to produce a reasonable representation of the stress strain curve for my supervisor.

An ordinary design assignment becomes interactive by making students retrieve standards and apply them when applicable, as opposed to handing students a sheet of the variables they may need, or referring them to tables in the back of a textbook. This is one of the simplest methods of inclusion, which could be used in conjunction with laboratory exercises or as part of ordinary homework assignments.

Capstone projects present a particularly relevant insertion point for standards in education. These experiences are intended to pull together the skills engineering students have learned through their education and apply it to a real-world scenario. Students should be reporting on the standards they used, how they were used, how their use impacted the project (time and cost savings), if the standards met their needs as written, and how they anticipate the standards will assist in penetrating markets for the product or service they undertook in the capstone project. Students could be encouraged to contact standards development organizations and identify technical industry members for assistance. This teaches them about the valuable resources offered by an SDO.

Some institutions have pioneered formal standards education; The Catholic University of America developed an entire course around standards in 1999. The course was well assembled, and rich in key speakers from agencies and industry. It provided background on various standards systems and the implications of standards from design, marketing and legal perspectives. One obstacle to the more widespread adoption of these programs is that curricula leave little time for courses that stray from the core curriculum or elective pool. To combat this, participants in some discussions have proposed the design of modules that teachers can use to provide a background on standards without occupying an entire course. Here at ASTM International, an educational task group is investigating such options, as well as enhancing our student membership program.

Disadvantages of Ignoring Standards Education

A poor understanding of standards issues regarding engineering design, product development, marketing, and market acceptance has undesirable consequences. Without an understanding of standardization, graduates may unnecessarily need elementary instruction in their first jobs, have a higher propensity for operating outside of best or accepted industry practices, waste resources by “reinventing the wheel,” and even simply fail in duties to align their products or services with desired markets.

To illustrate this, take market submissions to the Food and Drug Administration for medical device implants. The FDA publishes a list of standards that they recognize. When referencing FDA-recognized standards in many product submissions, manufacturers save money by avoiding the development of a new method—and the need to validate the method itself prior to using it to validate the product. The use of an FDA-recognized method (as declared by the manufacturer) presupposes conformity with the regulation for the testing of the device, and the manufacturer does not need to supply all supporting test documentation (unless requested).

Alternatively, constraints for device submissions may be measured using a worst-case analysis for the potential environment of an implant, for example, and all supporting methods and related documentation are required. This increases the time for product testing and review, adversely impacting the bottom line. Noting that standards are used in these submissions a majority of the time (well in excess of 50 percent) (Figure 4), are mechanical and biomedical engineers encouraged to utilize these real-world constraints while in college. Do they know that employers will anticipate that they understand how to use standards in design to facilitate product acceptance?

Without a standards component in their education, students may graduate without knowing the barriers presented by using incorrect standards, and without realizing the importance of standards in marketing and product acceptance. Failure to meet standards in regulatory references results in product non-conformance, or higher development or other costs. Students must understand the need to design, from inception, to the standards required to achieve marks — such as the “CE” or “UL” marks — to penetrate desired markets. Customers and governments look for such conformance with standards as a symbol of solid design, quality, compliance, and risk mitigation (Figure 5). Again, these lessons can be part of the reporting for capstone design projects, encouraging students to probe into the solutions that standards can provide for design and market issues.

Finally, understanding how standards systems work — going beyond an understanding of how standards work — will make students strategic assets to their employers. An education should stress to students that they, as technical professionals, can change and create standards. Professors could teach students how to make standards more responsive to their future operative and design needs, how to create market advantages through new standardization, and how to maintain a defensive posture and ensure standards do not change in a fashion detrimental to their employers’ products and services.

Students aware of these strategic benefits are well positioned to bring added value to their employers. Encouraging students to become members of SDOs is an important way to help them understand standards development systems. (Click here for information on ASTM’s student membership.)

Global Implications From a U.S. Perspective

With a general lack of sophistication about standardization, the U.S. workforce continues to struggle to better its global position. The risk of losing world market share has some of its roots in this very issue. As put forward by the 2000 U.S. National Standards Strategy: “The European Union is aggressively and successfully promoting its technology and practices to other nations around the world through its own standards processes and through its national representation in the international standards activities ... The exclusion of technology supporting U.S. needs from international standards can be a significant detriment to U.S. competitiveness. The U.S. will lose market share as competitors work hard to shape standards to support their own technologies and methods. Equally important, standards are the basis for protection of health, safety and the environment. When our standards in these areas are not accepted elsewhere, we all lose.” (2) This emphasizes the importance of helping the future workforce to understand the development and use of consensus standards.

In Conclusion

There are many simple opportunities for the incorporation of standards into curricula. Have students seek standards when performing design assignments and to corroborate text material. Substitute standard test methods in the laboratory, and encourage reporting on standards usage from intern/co-op experiences. Utilize the capstone projects to challenge students in the use and application of standards. Always encourage your students to participate as “student members” of SDOs, and to contact SDOs as a resource.

The business environment necessitates the development of a workforce that is prepared to understand and apply standards. Students need greater exposure to standardization in order to position themselves competitively and provide added value to the workplace. Curricula need to stay market-relevant, and standards education is a perfect medium to marry technical design to real-world issues. The competitiveness of graduating students, and the future workforce, depends on it. //


1 Standardization News, September 1999; “Standards and Codes in Mechanical Engineering Education,” Michael G. Jenkins. pp 20-22, ASTM International.
2 National Standards Strategy for the United States, Section II “Imperatives for Action,” American National Standards Institute.

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