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November/December 2009

James A. Thomas, President, ASTM International

Planting Seeds

ASTM’s Academic Outreach Program

In 2003, I wrote a Plain Talk article that announced a new category of membership — for students. I noted then that “there is a gap in the education of a great number of students. Most of them don’t know to what extent the world is formed, moved and influenced by standards. … Most of them don’t know that international collaboration and the quality and relevance of technology is used for everything from penetrating markets to protecting the environment. Upon graduation, with precious few exceptions, most of them will know far less than they should about standardization, or their right to it. We must do something about this now.”

And we did. Now in the sixth year of its academic outreach program, ASTM International has more than 4,700 active student members from around the world in its free membership category, where they are exposed to standardization firsthand. This is a good thing, but it is not only altruistic. It’s an investment in everyone’s future. As I said in that 2003 article, “The future must always be taken care of today; and right now, tomorrow’s technical experts are in a university somewhere. Our future is in college.” Most of the original student members have since graduated. They are now in the workforce with a heightened awareness of the opportunities they have for shaping the standards of the future, and the impact standards will have on their individual lives, their careers, the economy and the world.

But relatively speaking, there are far too few students graduating with this knowledge. Consider this: Among the 2,500 universities and colleges in the United States, only six offer comprehensive courses on standards.1While that is a startling statistic, standards are not totally absent from the curricula. Students of engineering, architecture and design will encounter standards in their courses of study, both as theory and in experience. Students of government, public policy and law will discover them in the study of regulations and trade agreements.

And yet, in an era of information, advanced industrial technologies, space travel, wildly progressing methods of telecommunication, environmental concerns and global trade, all built upon standards, there may still be a gap between what is happening in the real world and what students are learning about the uses of standards. Standardization has changed rapidly, far beyond technical implications; it has become a centerpiece for policies, strategies and competitiveness. It has become, if not a household word, one that is used with increasing frequency as we hold national discussions on everything from health care to the regulation of financial institutions.

Two years ago, ASTM International expanded its academic outreach program by launching a campaign to reach educators — offering a program of modules that integrate and incorporate standards into existing courses, on-campus seminars and guest lecturers, online educational resources and much more.2 We designated 2009 the Year of the Professor and established a cash award for a professor who has demonstrated an outstanding use of ASTM standards in his or her teaching. Like the student program, the initiative aimed at professors is generating increased interest among academics. The number of professors who have signed on to the Standards on Campus program in 2009 is already double that of last year.

Obviously, one standards developing organization can’t fill all the gaps in standards education in the United States. Other SDOs are doing work in this area, as well as the American National Standards Institute and organizations like ABET Inc., formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology,3 which has established standards education requirements for accredited engineering programs.

But we’re planting seeds. As our student members go out into the world, as our professors incorporate standards into their courses, as the seeds regenerate, their numbers will grow, as will the way our educational institutions view standardization. It’s just a matter of time and cultivation.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

1. In addition to the strategic standardization course offered by the Catholic University of America School of Engineering program for Engineering Management, the other standards courses are offered at the University of Colorado (Boulder) Center for Advanced Engineering and Technology Education, University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences and Telecommunications, Purdue University College of Technology, Seattle University School of Law, and Yale University School of Law. From “A National Survey of United States Standardization Policies” by the Center for Global Standards Analysis, August 2009, Edited by Donald E. Purcell, chair.

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3. ABET Inc., the recognized accreditor for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and technology, is a federation of 30 professional and technical societies representing these fields.

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