Professional Practice Skills

PPS-24  Self-Directed Learning

Locating and Filtering Information

 (Adapted from MPS 36, Don Woods 2003)


Pre-class assignment

  1. Read sections What is It?, Why Do It?, New Concepts, How to  Do It, and Learning Objectives
  2. Establish your Baseline on this skill on the Listener Feedback Form.
  3. Be able to describe these aspects of listening Attending, Following, and Responding to Check Comprehension


What is It?

Locating and filtering information is the skill of being able to quickly find and select the useful nuggets of information from the vast mountain of available information. 


New Concepts


Why Do It?

Time is a precious resource both on and off the job.  Information searches can be huge time sinks.


How to Do It

We start by assuming that you are doing reactive learning (PPS-23) and have a topic in mind.  To learn what you need you

  • Must know where to look (what resources are our there)
  • Must know what you are looking for (well defined learning goals)
  • Must know how to look (have skill in searching)


Where to Look?

First you should know what types of information are relevant to engineering, and who might have them.  What follows are listings of

  • Categories of written information
  • Producers/publishers of information
  • Compilers/Cataloguers of information


Written Resource Categories



Codes, Standards, Regulations

ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, Mil Specs, FDA, UL, ASTM


Marks Handbook for Mechanical Engineers, Metals Handbook, Machinery Handbook


See your bookshelves

Journals (Technical)

ASME Journals (not ME magazine)

Journals (Trade), Periodicals

Machine Design, Design News, DesignFax




Producers/Publishers of information





Regulations, Standards, Laws, Patents

Professional Societies (ASME, SAE, ASHRAE, ASM)

Handbooks, Codes and Standards, Journals, Conferences, Short Courses

Trade Groups

Handbooks, Trade Journals, Design Guides


Design Data and Design Guides


Expertise specific to your company

Publishing Companies

Handbooks, Textbooks, Technical Journals, Trade Journals


Short courses, On-line courses Books, Journals


Compilers/Cataloguers of information



WWW (World Wide Web)

A Meta-source or a place to find the other sources.  Search engines such as Google or AlltheWeb are usually the way in.  Free after internet access


Collect and distribute information in both hard copy and electronic form.  Don’t forget your company library. Usually free.

Journal Indexes/Abstracts

These are searchable compilations of mostly technical journals.  Fee for service or use through a library.

Thomas Register

Nationwide catalogue of vendors.  Electronic version is searchable.  Mix of free and fee.


There is lots of information in co-workers brains.  Sort of free.





What are you looking for?

This question addresses more than topic.  It also addresses depth and type of knowledge.  We’ll use four questions.  The answers to the questions help filter out entire categories of information.  The questions are

  • What MUST I know to be safe, legal, and ethical?
  • Do I need a Teacher?
  • What Depth of knowledge is needed?



What MUST I know to be Safe, Legal, Ethical?

If we are looking for constraints (must criteria) on our design, the first place to get information is the category of Codes, Standards, and Regulation.  If you are designing boilers or pressure vessels, you will need to dive into the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code.  It has been given the force of law in many states.  If you are dealing with medical device, the FDA is the source of important information.  For a military customer, Mil Specs are the standard.  Many devices need UL approval before a company is willing to put them on the market (Deep-fat turkey fryers are an exception.  Caveat emptor.) 


If you want to cover your legal/safety issues, you need to research who writes standards for that item.  Your company or trade association is a place to ask about the relevant regulatory bodies.  The Web is a good place to find companies who sell copies of the standards.


Do I need a Teacher?

Alternate phrasings of this question are Should I take and on-line course, short course, or seminar to learn the material? 


Arguments for

·         Teachers organize the information/skills, present the information/skills, and assess the learner. 

·         Formal courses can provide motivation, access to equipment, and access to expertise.  Learning skills, such as use of software or hardware, often works best in the medical residency approach of, See one, Do one, Teach one.  For those kind of skills, a teacher who has done this stuff before can be very helpful. 


Arguments against

·         Formal courses usually occur at times and locations that are inconvenient. 

·         The organization and presentation of knowledge probably doesn’t focus on your specific needs.  You can get generic organization, presentation, and assessment from textbooks or published course syllabi and notes. 

·         People in my organization may be able to demonstrate use of software or equipment.


What Depth of Knowledge is Needed?

Consider a two day short course on a Finite Element Analysis Software program presented by the vendor.  This is probably an excellent opportunity to get you up to speed on using all the controls, but it will not make you an expert on the use of finite elements.  It would be like a two day short course on how to fly a small plane.  When you try to solo, you’ll end up in the Atlantic with John F. Kennedy Jr.


Before starting, decide what level of knowledge or skill is needed (Some discussion of depth of knowledge occurs in PPS-27 Assessing Learning).  We look at two categories,

·         Overview Knowledge (when you are just starting)

·         Digging Deep (latest and greatest)


Overview Knowledge (when you are just starting)

If you are just starting in a topic, you want to get a big picture and know what the important topics are.  Textbooks and handbooks are a good place to start for this.  Neither is that much fun to read, but both tend to provide you with a good overview of the topics in the area.


Handbooks and textbooks tend to provide solid unbiased information, especially if they are published by professional organizations or major publishers.  None of them is perfect, and the data that they print should only be used for preliminary design calculations.


Textbooks and handbooks are poor sources of the most current information. They also tend to present all topics at the same level, so you may not be able to tell which topics represent common practice and which of the topics are more specialized or fringe areas.  To get closer to current and common practice information, you head toward publications by trade groups, publications by vendors, or current technical journals.


Digging Deep (latest and greatest)

Once you have the big picture and want to delve more deeply, you can graduate from textbooks to journals.  It is time to turn you bullshit filter to high, since publications by single authors, trade groups, or vendors are likely to be incomplete or have significant bias.


Trade journals are published by people who are promoting something.  They may be published by trade groups (collections of companies in the same business like Metal Powder Industries Federation or the Nickel Development Institute) or by publishing groups who make their money from advertisers (Machine Design, DesignFax). 


Publications by trade groups or trade associations tend to be solid collections of information about their field, but they aren’t going to tell you many positive things about competitors (they may not even mention or competing products).


Magazines like Machine Design or Design Fax print interesting and timely articles that both review current practice and introduce the latest technologies.  Some of the articles are barely modified news releases by manufacturers, some are how-to articles by experts and some are reviews by magazine staff.  You are unlikely to see anything that would offend an advertiser. 


Technical Journals are referred (pre-checked for worthiness by peers) and are reasonably reliable with respect to honest intent.  Many are highly specialized, very detailed in a narrow facet of the field, and difficult to read by the novice.  Much of the information goes beyond current practice into the area of possible future practice.  Occasionally, a good “review article” appears that summarizes the current state of the field.  These review articles are wonderful for the learner who is transitioning from books to technical journals.  You may luck into one on your own (especially if it has review in the title), but this is a good time to ask an expert in the field if you know one.


Vendors are often selling the latest and greatest.  They can be excellent (though biased) sources of design data, design techniques, and skill training.  They are often the least expensive forms of education, since they want your business.  If you are getting all your information from one vendor, your viewpoint is probably distorted.



How to Look (Practical Aspects)

When starting an information search, many college students start by logging onto the Web and going to a search engine like Google or AlltheWeb.  This is a good place to go, but sometimes you miss things. 

Many people use search engines at a low level.  If you go to the advanced search area of an engine like AlltheWeb, you can use Boolean logic to improve your search.  Even without formal instruction in Boolean operators, most engineers quickly adapt to use of AND, OR, NOT commands to help narrow searches. 


The compilers/catagoguers of information are another logical starting point.  For example, the Library Home Page at Rose-Hulman ( can get you to search engines, journal indexes, on-line textbooks, and on-line journals.  The journal indexes are particularly useful for in-depth information.


Finally, the table below shows some good compiler/catagloguers for particular topics.



Place to Start

Codes and Standards

HIS sells print and electronic copies of many standards ,


The US Patent Office


Thomas Register is a nationwide “yellow pages” for vendors

Journal Index

Compendex (via ei-village) using Rose library


Some producer/publishers are good sources for specific topics, especially those for which you want to find vendors.  Professional societies and trade groups usually have written resources and links to vendors are on their sites.


In-Class Exercise

Exercise 1

Form into groups of 2-4



Exercise 2

Form into groups of 2-4



Exercise 3

For the surviving hypotheses from Exercise 2





Feedback Form


Name _______________________                     


1.       At the outset of this unit, place a “B” in each category to indicate your self assessment of your initial, or baseline skill level.

2.       At the end of the unit place an “A” in each category to indicate your self assessment of your skill level after practicing the skill.  Be prepared to provide documentation for your assessment.



(less successful)


(shows few expert behaviors)



Good Start

(some expert behavior)


Getting There

(many   expert behaviors)


Almost There

(mostly expert behavior)



(shows all expert behavior)




(more successful)


































































Reflection of the Listener

What did I learn from this?




Which of the skills do I do pretty well?  (List Evidence)




Which skills could use some work? (List Evidence)