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Industrial engineering students explore ethical issues through experiential learning case study

Students enhance their knowledge of engineering responsibilities and best practices
May 18, 2021

In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to equipping software into 11 million of its vehicles worldwide, allowing the cars to emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than their emissions test indicated and well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limits. This case was used as a backdrop for third-year industrial engineering students in the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science (FEAS) to explore ethical dilemmas and apply professionalism in their field by investigating engineers’ responsibilities and duties. 

To enhance students’ knowledge of best engineering practices, Jamy Li, a researcher and professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Fenella Amarasinghe, Senior Manager, Education Planning and Development at FEAS, collaborated to create an assignment that allowed students to consider the ethical issues of the Volkswagen case and were tasked with presenting their findings.

“The teaching team of Fenella, the graduate assistants and I wanted to incorporate different case studies to improve the curriculum to achieve its objective of enhancing the real-world knowledge of students,” described Li.

By considering the relevance of learning from past failures and understanding what it means for future work, “it’s a way for students to think about the complexities inherent in engineering practices,” said Amarasinghe. “It is tempting to seek a clear-cut right and wrong answer, but there are indeed shades of gray and competing priorities that can impact how decisions are made.” 

The assignment provided students with the experience to navigate ethical issues within their industry and prepare them to approach these dilemmas in their professional lives. Touching on key All-in Approach (AIA) hubs such as experiential learning and leadership, students had the opportunity to examine the case study critically and investigate solutions that would effectively serve the people their work impacts.

Third-year industrial engineering student, Pat Vellalaghan, explained that the unique assignment helped to highlight engineers’ role in society. “When you’re studying engineering, you’re expecting just to study math or science,” said Vellalaghan. “But to do an ethics assignment such as this one provides a very different perspective.”

Reflecting on the assignment, Vellalaghan said his biggest takeaway was considering his duties as an engineer. “I believe that after doing this assignment, we have a responsibility not just to the company we work for, but rather, the people that our work affects,” said Vellalaghan. 

“In terms of this scandal, Volkswagen was trying to cut the bottom line and cheat,” said Vellalaghan. “However, their engineers should have realized that the environmental impacts the car has is a universal problem that will affect everyone, not just the people that buy their cars.”

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to realize that as engineers, whatever we do has an impact on society, and it’s our responsibility to uphold and honour that,” said Vellalaghan.