IEEE Ethics Contest Gets Second Life

The student competition has come a long way since it was first held in 2005

8 July 2008

The IEEE Ethics Competition for student members of Region 2 has come a long way since it was first held in 2005. Back then the region commissioned students in Rowan University’s Theater Department in Glassboro, N.J., to act out ethics scenarios, using the rationale that live action would make the competition more interesting than just reading a problem on a page. The IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee holds the competitions to educate student members about the ethical dilemmas they may encounter once they enter the working world.

This year the ethics scenarios, programmed in advance, entered the virtual world. They were presented via the popular three-dimensional online world of Second Life, which is part social network service and part interactive world. In general, Second Life allows a “resident”—an individual character created by a Second Life account holder—to explore the virtual world, meet other residents, socialize, create a business and trade with others, and organize group activities. Characters interact on-screen in real time and are for the most part free to do as they like within the computer world the programmers have created—much like a 3-D video game. Second Life boasts nearly 13 million residents around the world.

A student at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, in Williamsport, wrote the ethics scenario used at the competition. He and others performed the scenario in Second Life while making a video recording of their characters’ words and actions. Region 2 students, in two-person teams from more than 20 schools, later watched a playback of the ethics scenario on their computer screens.

The competition was held on 5 April at the Pennsylvania College of Technology as part of IEEE’s 2008 Student Activities Conference. Following the Second Life presentations, a panel of judges from both the academic and professional worlds quizzed each team—in real life—on their solution to the ethics problem.

According to Shreekanth Mandayam, Region 2 Student Activities chair, the region wanted to do something different to make the contest more appealing to students. Mandayam is also chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at Rowan University.

“I’m not that much into video games, but the students for the most part just loved this presentation of the competition,” said Mandayam. “The fact is, many undergraduates perceive the study of ethics to be boring. But many of them were already using Second Life, and that’s where the idea came from.”

HAZARDS The ethical dilemma the students faced involved an employee of an industrial engineering company working on a US $3.5 million project with multinational petroleum giant TopDog Corp. to supply pumping stations. It is revealed that several government bodies were investigating TopDog for explosive hazards at its pump sites. After the employee raised concerns about the hazards—which were never addressed by the employee’s supervisors—the project got the green light. Six months later, the TopDog manufacturing facility burst into flames; three people died, with dozens injured and several missing.

The judges posed a series of questions to the students about the behavior of the people involved. The teams were judged on how well their members answered the questions and communicated their conclusions, and how well their responses related to the IEEE Code of Ethics. Rowan University’s team took first place and won a $400 prize. Villanova University, in Pennsylvania, came in second and received $200.

Looking to the future, Mandayam hopes to eventually change the format of the competition yet again, to allow teams to be truly submersed in the Second Life action and the ethical dilemmas instead of merely watching a recording of the problem. Making this happen is problematic right now because the ethics committee has very strict rules on what participants are allowed to do during the competition. Seeing the ethical problems performed by actors—be they flesh and bones or pixels and polygons—is fine, as long as competitors commit their answers to paper. Mandayam is working with the EMCC to change the answering format from written responses to live action.

OTHER CONTESTS Students across North America have taken part in five ethics competitions so far this year. The IEEE student branch at the University of Ottawa in Region 7 not only held its own competition on 2 February but also placed first. Student members from Arizona State University took home the prize at an ethics contest on 18 April hosted by the Student Professional Awareness Committee, in Temple, Ariz. The IEEE Region 5 Conference in Kansas City, Mo., held a competition, also on 18 April, and a team from Louisiana Tech University came in first. At SoutheastCon 2008, in Huntsville, Ala., the Georgia Institute of Technology brought home the ethics gold.

Most of these competitions use the standard pencil and paper format, although some use live actors just as Region 2 once did.

“These competitions just get bigger and bigger every year,” says Mandayam. “One surprise we've had is the high turnout of female students taking part, much more than in any other year.” In the Region 2 competition, there was a woman on every team, and some teams were all women, “a welcome development,” he adds.

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