Overview of the PPS Program


What is it?

The PPS program is a series of units to help engineering students learn to

  • Manage projects
  • Solve technical problems
  • Deal with day-to-day production problems (troubleshooting, firefighting)
  • Acquire new knowledge and skills on their own


As such, PPS could stand for any of the following

  • Professional Practice Skills
  • Principles of Problem Solving
  • Personal Performance Skills


Professional Practice Skills was chosen as the title primarily to communicate the value of the units in the student’s professional life.  Students sometimes discount skills that they view as outside of engineering and we want these skills to be seen as valuable to engineers. 


The units are intended to be presented throughout the four year curriculum, primarily in design courses, but also in technical problems courses.  Note that this is a work in progress and not all units are completed.


Why do it?

Many practicing engineers spend significant amounts of time managing projects, dealing with ill-defined problems, troubleshooting production problems, and learning new technology.  An organized approach to teaching students useful skills in these areas has been found to be helpful (Alumni from McMaster University reported that the McMaster Problem Solving Approach was the most useful part of their undergraduate education).


Additionally, PPS units map well to ABET Criteria and Rose-Hulman Learning Outcomes.  In the section on Organization and Topics, the specific Criteria and Outcomes are listed.


Organization and Topics of the PPS Program

The goal of the program is to help students develop skills to

  • Manage projects
  • Solve technical problems
  • Deal with day-to-day production problems (troubleshooting, firefighting)
  • Acquire new knowledge and skills on their own


The organization of the PPS Program follows this list. 


Managing Projects, especially Design Projects

The Professional Practice Skills (PPS) units (PPS-1 through PPS-8, and PPS-31 through PPS-36) are designed to help students develop skills in working individually and with groups to set and achieve goals.   These topics are often covered in Design courses, but the skills are equally appropriate to community service projects and within the student’s personal life (PPS could stand for Personal Performance Skills). 


Because the skills are appropriate in many aspects of an individual’s life, in-class exercises and out-of-class assignments cover both personal and engineering issues.  This follows the model recommended by Woods to present the skill first in a subject-independent domain, then bridge to the subject dependent domain, and to extend the skill to everyday life.  This emphasizes the general value of the skill and should mean that the skill is less likely to be relegated to the MExxx brain bin where it is either dumped at the end of the course or only accessed when an MExxx topic is encountered.


Assessment of the skills is explicitly defined for each skill.  This serves several goals.  One, the skills are seen as measurable, rather than amorphous “soft skills”.  Two, grading is more likely to be fair, and be perceived as fair, if everyone knows the standards.  Three, for lifelong learning, students need to be able to self-assess, and for that, clear assessment criteria are needed.



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Working in Groups, Meetings

Meeting skills, agendas, minutes, action items, group norms, role of the chairperson, individual responsibilities



Goals And Assessment

Setting results-based, measurable goals




Jumping the mental ruts to generate many different ideas



Developing Criteria and Constraints

Developing clear, quantifiable criteria to achieve a goal



Decision Making

Evaluating options with respect to quantifiable criteria, and selecting the “best”



Project Planning

Work breakdown and scheduling, Gantt charts



Group Skills Workshop

Workshop on behaviors related to task, morale



Group Skills: Individual differences

Individual differences and making personality diversity work



Group Skills: Listening

Providing the speaker with evidence of listening


They are useful to all ABET criteria but map most explicitly to ABET criteria c, d, e, and i. 

c.   an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs.

d.   an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams. 

e.   an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems.

i.    a recognition of need for and ability to engage in lifelong learning.

They also map to RHIT student outcomes Teams and Design


Managing Projects, Level 2







Agent of Change

Assessing a situation for change, getting buy-in



Dealing with Change 

Addressing change within your own life and the lives of those you affect as an Agent of Change



Goals Level 2  Mission Vision

Characteristics of a Goal, Mission/Vision statements




Group Skills: Conflict

Dealing with conflict




Principles of Problem Solving

PPS-10 through PPS 18 address topics most applicable to what are generally termed Engineering Problems courses.  In those courses, students typically solve two to three end-of-chapter problems for every hour in lecture. 


In the Woods terminology, these “problems” are better termed “exercises” since they are generally very well defined examples of the principles just covered in class.  The student’s primary strategies for dealing with these homework problems is to find a very similar example problem for a model, or to try all the equations at hand until a number looks like the one in the back of the book.


The following Principles of Problem Solving units apply a different approach.  First, the students are introduced to there own thought processes in an effort to show them that thinking can be broken down into components.  These thinking skills can be manipulated and improved to enhance problem solving abilities.  An overall problem solving approach is introduced, and specific instruction is given in how to apply it.


During the course of the term, or several terms, specific skills are addressed within the context of the general approach.



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Recognition that problem solving is a compilation of skills, much like hitting a golf ball.  Awareness of the internal process.



Problem Solving Method

Description of a 6-step general approach to problem solving.



Strategy workshop

Practicing the 6-step method,



Define the Stated Problem

Classify the components of the given statement into categories of goals, givens and knowns, criteria and constraints,



Define the System

Determining the boundary of the system to be analyzed, and identifying all inputs and outputs.  Called system diagram, free-body diagram, …



Getting Unstuck

Recognizing when you are stuck and developing techniques to get unstuck



Organizing and Classifying Technical Knowledge

Understand the structure of knowledge in your discipline and be able to use appropriate language and symbology



Analysis: Consistency

Ability to compare with standards, esp. units, conversions, assumptions, typical values.  Ability to check other’s work for consistency, accuracy.



Applying Experience/

Engineering intuition

Appling Rules-of-Thumb




Estimating and back of the envelope work


These map mostly to ABET a, e, I, and k and to RHIT Problem Solving

a.   an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering.

e.   an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems.

k.   an ability to use techniques, skills and modern engineering tools necessary for


Dealing with Day-to-Day Problems and Self Directed Learning

Most engineers need to deal with multiple projects, unexpected failures, and a wealth of problems with which they had little or no prior knowledge.  The units in this section teach skills to deal with those day-to-day problems.


In particular, the unit on troubleshooting presents an adaptation of the Six Step Method of problem solving that approximates the differential diagnosis approach used by physicians.  It is the first step of root cause failure analysis.



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Stress Management 

Personal Stress Management



Time Management 

Personal Time management




Adaptation of the Six Step method to diagnosis of problems, (finding root cause)



Self-Directed Learning SDL (overview)

Learning as an engineering project.  Includes finding, using, and evaluating resources.



SDL: Locating and Filtering Information

Using resources to find and select useful nuggets of information



SDL: Evaluating Resources

A quantitative evaluation of resources (especially web sources)



SDL: Learning New Information (from reading)

An organized approach to efficiently learning through reading



SDL Assessing Learning (learning goals)

Determining assessable learning goals using Bloom’s Taxonomy






The fact that Troubleshooting does not map explicitly to any ABET or RHIT goal seems to be a serious omission.  Perhaps the authors of those lists intend it to fall in the generic “problem solving” category, but the skill of problem diagnosis does not appear to be taught formally.


Stress and Time Management, and Self Directed Learning are useful on a day to day basis and map to ABET “i” and RHIT Lifelong learning

i.    a recognition of need for and ability to engage in lifelong learning.