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Illinois team in final four of ethics competition

3/29/2021

Debra Levey Larson

A hypothetical company is conducting a flight test on its new hypersonic vehicle for commercial use. Some aspects of an earlier ground test have raised concerns. Combine that with pressure from the client to complete the job early and you have the gist of the scenario that was the basis for this year’s Ethics in Engineering Case Competition at Lockheed Martin.

Lisa Rosov
Lisa Rosov

This year, the three-day competition began with 26 teams of three students each. It ended with Brigham Young University’s team pitted against the University of California San Diego and Texas A&M arguing against a team from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which included aerospace engineering senior Lisa Rosov.

“In some of my aerospace classes, we’ve looked at small, ethical scenarios and most of the time the answers are clear cut, but in this competition, it was much more complex,” Rosov said. “There were a lot of intricate, minor ethical problems that would pop up.”

She gave examples, such as one engineer in the scenario who saw results of a test but didn't communicate it her supervisor. Another engineer ran an unfunded test.

“Then there was a company leader who asked if anyone can prove that the vehicle is unsafe,” Rosov said. “This is a hard question to answer, because you want to prove that something is safe, not that something is unsafe. We had to focus on all of these smaller problems because they all played a role.”

Rosov said, another dilemma came up because the company wanted to bump up the deadline, so she consulted with AE Professor Jason Merret who worked at Gulf Stream for 14 years before joining AE’s faculty in 2018.

“Dr. Merret has experience in aircraft development, including flight testing,” she said. “He said that if a company wants an earlier deadline than the contract states, they'll likely offer additional resources and it will all be written in the amended contract. Our case study didn’t say anything about renegotiating, just that they're adding pressure to complete it. That’s when we realized that there’s a whole other ethical issue that we had glossed over.”

Ethics team faculty adviser Joe Bradley
Ethics team faculty adviser Joe Bradley

Because the scenario touches on issues like these that relate more to business and ethics than engineering, Joe Bradley, faculty in the Department of Bioengineering and faculty adviser for the team, assembled a team of students who had expertise in all the three areas.

Rosov filled the aerospace engineering niche, while the other two undergraduate team members brought different expertise: Anton Sebastian, a computer science major in The Grainger College of Engineering, and Clay Ward, a philosophy major.

Clay Ward
Clay Ward, philosophy student on the ethics team

Ward recognized the team’s balanced background. “After reading the case, I realized we had a perfect tripartite skillset in our group that was primed to do really well in the competition.”

Anton Sebastian
Anton Sebastian, computer science student on the ethics team

Sebastian’s first exposure to ethics was in a course focused on ethics within the field of computer science.  “The biggest challenge we faced in this competition was thoroughly understanding the business, ethics, and engineering issues specific to this case,” he said. “There is no perfect solution when tackling a complicated issue. We had to consider many tradeoffs before making our final recommendation.”

The competition took place online this year in three rounds. For round one, each team gave a 90-second elevator pitch to explain the problem and their solution. In round two, the teams gave a 15-minute presentation. The third round was set up as a role play between teams in a tournament-style bracket.

“Although the structure was set ahead of time, when it came to the semifinals, they realized that all the teams were too well prepared, so they changed the rules,” Rosov said. “During that first five minutes of the opening statement, that was supposed to be uninterrupted, they allowed judges to interrupt, act angry at something we said, and ask us questions. That threw everyone off a little bit because we weren't expecting it and they hadn't told us they were going to do it.”

Ward said, “The most challenging part of the case was finding the right words and maintaining a professional analysis when it came to the final three minutes against Texas A&M. They were extremely well prepared, and it came down to a battle of wills at the end, which was awesome to be a part of.”

Rosov added that it was a unique opportunity and an “eye-opening experience.”

For more about the competition, visit Lockheed Martin’s website.