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Engineering Student Takes on Ethics Bowl

by Griffin Davis ’22 EE

Timothy Byrne ’20 ChE, back row, third from left
Timothy Byrne ’20 ChE, back row, third from left

Villanova University’s Ethics Program sent debate teams to the regional qualifier for the National Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl on December 1, 2018. The qualifier took place at Marist College, and Villanova placed two teams in the top eight, with one team reaching the championship round. Thanks to its exemplary performance, the University earned one of 32 bids to the national competition.

Asked about the team, faculty advisor Dr. Mark Wilson, says: “We receive tremendous support from our participants, who often serve as the best source of recruitment for new team members by sharing their experiences and enthusiasm. We are also very fortunate in the Ethics Program to reach students from the colleges of Arts and Science, Engineering and Business through the core ethics requirement. Our faculty do a tremendous job of highlighting the debate team and encouraging interested students to pursue the opportunity to join. Lastly, the Honors Program has been an invaluable resource. With these support structures, we’ve consistently been able to field one of the most academically diverse teams in the country, which has been integral to our success over the years.”

This year, one of the Ethics Debate team members was Chemical Engineering major Timothy Byrne ’20, who shared his thoughts on the experience:

What interested you in ethics?

I have always been interested in topics outside of engineering and in expanding my education in those fields. For example, I have a business minor and am pursuing a humanities minor. So, personally being involved in Ethics Bowl stems from a general interest in lots of different topics, and wanting to have experiences in a lot of different fields.

How do ethics and engineering come together?

I recently took a class called "Engineering Ethics," and in it I learned a great deal about the connection between engineering and ethics. I came out of that class with the understanding that ethics is an inherent part of practicing the engineering profession. Engineers are constantly making important decisions that affect other people, and an ethical consideration of the impact of our decisions is essential for people in our position.

Would you recommend Ethics Bowl to other engineering students?

I definitely would recommend Ethics Bowl to other engineers, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are a great group of people in it whom I have quickly made friends with. Ethics Bowl also challenges you to think about complex topics that you may not otherwise consider. The competitions involve presenting your team's case, and therefore help with skills such as public speaking, teamwork, and being able to formulate a convincing and coherent argument. Additionally, the cases are often drawn from different, practical implications of ethics that could be particularly relevant to engineering. For example, there are sometimes medical ethics questions, etc. In the latest competition, there was a question about self-driving technology.

What kind of time commitment is involved with the competition?

The competition is an all-day event once a semester, usually far enough away that we drive up the day before and stay in a hotel. The team is a commitment throughout the semester, meeting twice a week to discuss our cases. It is important for all members of the team to work together in refining the cases and understanding the possible questions that could be asked during the competition.

What topics were presented during the competition?

At the beginning of the semester, teams are given briefs on 15 possible topics that could come up during the competition, and are expected to consider and prepare on these topics before the competition at the end of the semester. This semester covered a wide range of topics, including: ethical uses of genealogy website data by law enforcement, how to design self-driving cars, the extent of religious liberty in the practicing of midwifery by the Amish community, the effects of tax haven nations on the broader global community, whether victim impact statements in trials successfully uphold justice, and many others. The competitions truly address practical ethical topics.

How will this experience benefit your future career in engineering?

There are a lot of useful skills to be had from participating in the club. Public speaking, teamwork, and making logical, convincing arguments are all part of Ethics Bowl that will be useful skills in my future engineering career. Additionally, given the importance of ethics in engineering, it is good to consider practical ethical cases such as the ones presented in the club.