Carnegie Mellon University

Project Courses

The capstone experience for EPP undergraduates consists of problem-solving project courses to synthesize technology-policy issues with social science analysis. In the EPP Projects Course, students experience working on unstructured, real-world problems that, for proper treatment, require teamwork and contributions from diverse disciplines.

A common lament from recruiters of undergraduates is a lack of general team-oriented, multi-faceted, problem-solving skills, along with poor written and oral communication skills to a broad audience. The EPP Projects courses provides all of those skills to students, and is the course most often identified by our alumni as the essential course of their undergraduate careers. Offered each semester, the courses involve faculty and students from EPP, the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, and the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon. EPP Doctoral students serve as project managers. Problem areas are abstracted from local, state and national situations and involve the interaction of technology and public policy.

Course Description

In each project course, students work in multidisciplinary teams (engineers, computer science students, humanities and social science students, public policy and management graduate students) on a “cutting edge” project topic with very little in the way of “pre-digested” analysis or solutions.  Project faculty attempt to choose topics with both technical and social dimensions, requiring multi-dimensional analysis.  Students are given a general goal, and are expected to discover existing knowledge on the topic, to research existing policies relevant to the topic, and analyze alternatives that make society better off.  Using this background research, and their technical and social analysis education as appropriate, the students then create new knowledge on the subject.  This knowledge is communicated to an external advisory panel, selected from experts and constituencies of importance to the issue.  Students give interim reports during the semester, after which the advisory panel may make suggestions on direction and scope of the work. A final oral report is presented to the panel along with a written report at the end of the semester. (12 units)

Course Objectives

By the end of the course, students should gain skills in the following areas:

  1. Decomposing, structuring, and formulating solutions to unstructured problems.
  2. Assessing what can be done and delivering a product on time.
  3. Interdisciplinary problem solving: Data collection, analysis, and synthesis, formulation and evaluation of policy recommendations.
  4. Developing professional oral and written communication skills through participation in oral presentations, and preparation of the final written project document.
  5. Developing the ability to function on multidisciplinary teams.

These course objectives are independent of the content and topic, or what specific activities and responsibilities a particular student takes on.

Download the Project Course archive.

Spring 2017 Project Courses

The Future of Alerts and Warnings
Faculty: Doug Sicker, Marvin Sirbu
Project Manager: Rachel Dryden

Presentation Dates: March 2, May 4
Presentation Time: 3:00pm
Presentation Places: Baker Hall 129

This project will explore how to effectively deploy and use future emergency alert and warning systems. Alert and warning systems provide the necessary information for the purpose of preserving the health and safety of the general public. The delivery of alerts and warnings might make use of a broad set of technologies including sirens, TV, texts, social media and more. Technology is changing in ways which have implications for warning delivery; e.g. how should locally targeted messages be layered on top of nationally delivered DBS or streaming video? The messaging within alerts and warnings should be designed to provide the necessary information to warn the public and effect the necessary actions that will lead to their safety. Such a system should: reach people at risk for the hazard; recommend protective actions that people understand and can reasonably take with the guidance provided; recommend protective actions that apply to all alert recipients (e.g., recommendations to shelter in place for a tornado may not be actionable for mobile home residents who don’t have community shelters; advance recommendations to evacuate or shelter elsewhere would be more helpful); be respected and trusted by the public, emergency managers, other public officials, and the media; and include alerting channels for all populations at-risk (e.g., recognizes needs around language, abilities, technology access). Questions might include: how should the messages be delivered? how long should the message be? should the message include maps? how geotargeted should the message be? what source is most trusted (federal government, local government, local public safety, your social network …)? how important is security and privacy, and how might they be implemented? how can the system protect against the injection of fake or false messages? should the communications be two-way? Should the user’s end device tailor the message to the user? what provisions should be made for non-English speakers or those who are deaf or blind?

Air Quality Benefits from Vehicle Emissions Testing
Faculty: Paul Fischbeck, Deanna Matthews
Project Manager: Sinnott Murphy
Presentation Dates: March 2, May 2
Presentation Time: 3:00pm
Presentation Location: Porter Hall 223D

In 2015, Volkswagen admitted that it installed software on 11 million vehicles that would sense when the vehicle was getting an emissions test and set engine parameters to run cleaner. This allowed vehicles to pass emissions tests. During actual driving the software set different parameters, and those vehicles emitted nitrogen oxide (NOx) exhaust well above legal limits. Now, FiatChrysler is being accused of a similar issue with its engine management software. Traditional vehicle emissions testing and inspections did not detect these issues due to the current procedures for emissions testing. Vehicle emissions testing and inspection protocols changed in the late 1990s with the advent of on-board diagnostics (OBD). The OBD equipment monitors the status of various vehicle components, including those related to vehicle emissions. If the various sensors and equipment statuses are all working as expected, then a vehicle’s “check engine light” is off – and the vehicle passes inspection. The actual tailpipe emissions are never tested for newer model vehicles. The OBD equipment has software designed by the original equipment manufacture (OEM) to perform regular checks of the vehicle mechanics and electronics, and these are intended to demonstrate that the vehicle is functioning properly. These recent issues with the underlying functions of the OBD and regulations concerning emissions make us question the usefulness of OBD checks for emissions testing and the potential impact this can have on urban air quality. This project aims to investigate vehicle emissions and testing protocols and provide the states with recommendations for future emissions testing and air quality monitoring.

Faculty: John Miller, Edward Rubin
Client: The Public

This project analyzes key issues related to biking in the City of Pittsburgh and provides policy recommendations for biking to become a more important and productive part of the community.

Faculty: Baruch Fischhoff, Jon Peha
Client: The Public

This project assessed the deployment of “smart city” devices on Pittsburgh streetlights, including femtocells, Wi-Fi hotspots, automobile traffic monitors, air quality monitors, and video-cameras for law enforcement.

Faculty: Paulina Jaramillo, John Miller
Client: The Public

This project evaluated the risk of failure of Kariba Dam and its potential impacts on the infrastructure, environment, economies, society and politics.

Instructors: Jon Peha, Ed Rubin
Client: Pittsburgh Police Department

This project examined measureable costs and benefits of police body-worn cameras, public policies that US cities have adopted, and the views of police officers.

Instructors: Baruch Fischhoff, Deanna Matthews
Client: The Public

The project developed guidelines for helping individuals and communities make best use of personal environmental monitors, with case studies focused on monitors for particulate matter and radiation.

Instructors:  Meagan Mauter, Jay Whitacre
Client:  The Public

This project examined the tradeoffs of using different technical and policy approaches to address the ongoing drought in central California.
Instructors: Denise Caruso, Paul Fischbeck
Client:  Public

This project explored the possible applications, impacts, and limitations of an open data portal in Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh [as described in the Open Data Initiative issued by the City of Pittsburgh in 2014].
Instructors:  Denise Caruso, Baruch Fischhoff
Client:  Public

Students developed a general approach to helping health clinics to schedule patients, using interviews, surveys, and modeling.
Instructors:  Jon Peha, Michael Yu
Client:  Public

This project addressed the challenges of providing emergency information to non-English speakers during disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes. It examined the extent to which non-English speakers can receive emergency information in their own language today, the methods available for translation of emergency alerts, the preferences of non-English-speakers, and the strategies local governments throughout the U.S. use to assist non-English speakers during emergencies.
Instructors:  Nichole Argo, Kelly Klima
Client:  City of Pittsburgh
Students used engineering, economics, and risk communication skills to conduct a climate adaptation analysis for heat and water hazards in Pittsburgh.
Instructors:  Liz Casman, Deanna Matthews
Client:  Pennsylvania Senate Finances Committee
This project analyzed the proposed Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1080, which would impose a state-wide two-cent fee on single use plastic bags.
Instructors:  Michal Goldberg, Jon Peha, Ed Rubin
Client:  The Public
This one-semester research project studied local news in the city of Pittsburgh. The project examined the various media that are producing news, including both old and new media, and the local news that they are producing; assessed the local news coverage available, and considered what public and private organizations might do to improve local news in Pittsburgh and perhaps in other cities across the country. The project drew on students' knowledge in diverse areas including information technology, social science, public policy, and quantitative analysis.
Instructors: Baruch Fischhoff, Paulina Jaramillo
Client: The Public
Radioactive contamination can come from varied sources, including accidents at nuclear power plants (e.g., Fukushima), terrorist attacks with radioactive dispersion devices (RDDs), industrial processes, coal-fired power plants, and medical equipment.  In the United States, many public and provide organizations are involved in avoiding such contamination. When it happens, government agencies have ultimate authority for dealing with the aftermath, including evacuation, decontamination, and reoccupation. As one part of that effort, in March 2013, the US Environmental Protection Agency requested public comment on the draft of Protective Action Guides and Planning Guidance for Radiological Incidents. These Protective Action Guides (PAGs) update ones issued in 1992 and complement guidance from other agencies.

Instructors: Elizabeth Casman, Deborah Stine
Client: The Public, Foundations, Business, Industry, and Government Policymakers
This project investigated the potential for replacing liquid petroleum based transportation fuels with natural gas in the Pittsburgh region. The vehicles examined were light-duty cars for personal use, taxis, tug and towboats, trains, tractor-trailer trucks, school buses, and transit buses.  The analysis included determining the break even point for switching an existing vehicle type so it could use natural gas as a fuel; developing supply curves to prioritize the conversion of fleets of vehicles considering economic, energy security and environmental benefits to Pittsburgh; and analyzing existing and potential policies.

Download the final report

Instructors: Deanna Matthews, Mike Griffin, Nichole Argo
Client: The Public

Wind energy in the U.S. has seen rapid development over the past decades as States push for increased renewable electricity generation. This project aimed to determine the potential for wind energy as a primary source of renewable energy growth in the U.S. given the current state of opposition to wind power development.
Instructors: Denise Caruso, Michal Goldberg, Ed Rubin
Client: Port of Pittsburgh Commission

This project analyzed the state of locks and dams on waterways of the Pittsburgh region and their value to commerce and economic development in the Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Instructors: Baruch Fischhoff, Jon Peha
Client: PittsburghCONNECTS
The project developed methods for evaluating programs seeking to reduce the 'digital divide', which separates communities with and without ready Internet access. The project evaluated digital divide programs in Pittsburgh.

Instructors: Elizabeth Casman, Lorrie Cranor
Client: The Public
Students investigated the current and potential use of social media in emergency messaging in the USA through surveys, interviews, experimentation, and literature review.

Read the project report.

Instructors: Paul Fischbeck, Scott Matthews
Client: The Public
This project examined the transportation and energy policies in the U.S. based on the study of regional stock of Pennsylvania registered vehicles over 10 years, census data and state-wide surveys.
Instructors: Michele Tumminello, Joel Tarr, Mike Griffin
Client: The Public
The project investigated the relationship between regional energy production and regional water quality in southwestern Pennsylvania, past, present and future, emphasizing the current environmental concerns related to shale gas development.
Faculty: Baruch Fischhoff, Deanna Matthews
Client: The Public
The US Food and Drug Administration sometimes uses Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS) in order to make drugs safer or learn more about their risks. The project examined how consistently REMS are applied, along with how to evaluate and improve their effectiveness.
Instructors: Liz Casman, Lorrie Cranor
Client: The Public
In order to understand the opportunities for reducing printing at the Carnegie Mellon Campus, a study was performed investigating (1) the reasons students and staff print (2) the amount of printing taking place, (3) the environmental footprint of electronic alternatives to printing and the use of “green” consumables and (4) incentives and technologies for printing reduction.
Instructors: Paul Fischbeck, Iris Grossmann
Client: The Public
The US vehicle fleet has gone through a gradual though significant evolution over the past 20 years such as better fuel economy and lower maintenance cost as well as increased in safety measures, comfort and price, amongst others. How these trends have affected overall safety and environmental impacts is now being discussed. Using data from a variety of sources (e.g., federal, state, industry), this project investigated the significance across multiple variables (e.g., geographic region, type of vehicle, income) for a broad set of metrics (e.g., fatalities per mile, economic value of the fleet, miles per year, gallons per year) to evaluate the impacts.
Instructors: Ed Rubin, MicheleTumminello
Client: The Public
Accidents in the U.S. energy supply system affect the lives of Americans, our environment, and the economy.  The objectives of this project were to identify key areas where safety improvements are possible, and to recommend ways to reduce the number and severity of accidents in the supply of energy. The report compared accident trends and impacts across all major energy supply industries. The role of public perception and future energy preferences also were investigated, along with an analysis of regulatory effectiveness. Recommendations were presented based on the study findings.
Instructors: Baruch Fischhoff and Iris Grossmann
Client: The Public
Proponents of drilling in the Marcellus Shale promise large economic benefits. Opponents question those benefits and worry about social and environmental damages.  Twenty students from the Departments of Engineering and Public Policy and of Social and Decision Sciences examined these claims from the perspective of the expected effects of drilling on different stakeholders.  Three groups of students studied specific aspects of the technology (a) experiences with the Barnett Shale (in Texas) as a predictor of experiences in Pennsylvania; (b) health, safety, and environmental management of the technology; (c) externalities borne by communities and the environment.  Two groups developed decision aids (a) for setting priorities for the inspection of drilling sites and (b) for evaluating the attractiveness of lease contract offered to landowners.