Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 1: Introduction
The ASU Library purchases access to the types of information that your instructors want you to use and what you'll be expected to use when you become a professional engineer. To find this information you'll need to know where to look and what to look for. Here's how to do it ...
Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 2: Pick a Good Topic
Has your instructor given you the option to pick your own research topic?
A good topic:
The more you enjoy the topic, the more pleasant the work will be; you may find that it's not really work at all.
Has an appropriate scope.
If whole books have been written about the topic, it's too broad for a short paper or talk; narrow the scope by looking for a specific issue within that topic. Instead of writing about bridges in general, how about writing on "bridge failures in the United States"?
On the other hand, if very little has been published on the topic, it's too narrow; try broadening the topic by taking a step (or two) back. So, instead of studying "suspension bridge failures in Phoenix", what about "bridge failures in Arizona"?
Is something on which you can do an analysis and make a recommendation.
Writing a paper or giving a talk is more than just paraphrasing what you found when researching your topic. You'll need to draw conclusions that are supported by your research. If your paper is about the Interstate-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, don't just give a timeline of what happened. You should address such issues as what has been learned and what still needs to be studied.
Having trouble coming up with a good topic? Try these engineering sites to get ideas:
Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 3: Build a Strong Foundation
The books and and journal articles you'll be using in college are written for people who are already knowledgeable about the subject. Just as every structure needs a good foundation, you'll need to learn the basics about a topic so you'll be able to understand what your research finds.
You can get an introduction to just about any engineering concept via encylopedias and handbooks; use these to read about your topic before you start your research. For example, if your topic is about bridges, do you know what the different types of bridges are? What forces are at play in each type? What materials are typically used in each?
In addition, dictionaries can be used to determine what a technical term means. Whether in print or online, always have a technical dictionary for the field you're researching on-hand to help you decifer what you're reading.
Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 4: Know Where to Look
As an undergraduate, you'll use primarily two types of resources:
Use the "Books" and "Journal Articles" links above to discover what library resources will help you find appropriate books and journal articles for your topic.
Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 5: Search Strategies
Most research at this level will require that you use more than one resource as each resource will cover different parts of the literature. (Even Google can't find everything.) Also, you may find that you have to try several times before you find the best combination of words for searching that resource. What words you use for searching and how you ask the computer to combine them will directly affect your results, so it pays to use different word combinations and strategies.
So how do you know what are the best words for your search?
Start with the words you use to describe the topic
As you scan the results set:
Look for other terminology the authors are using in their titles and abstracts (summaries) to describe the same topic.
If available, look in the left or right columns on the results screen for subject faceting (sometimes called "refine options") to see what wording is appearing most frequently.
After you have found other terminology for your topic, redo your search using these new words; you'll retrieve more books/articles that are on your topic.
Some people find the PICO method helpful in formulating search strategies.
Keep in mind that literature research is a not a linear process; it's not "search, read, write, turn it in". It's more "search, read, refocus, search again ..." as many times as is necessary before you can write your paper. It may take two or three cycles of "search, read, refine" before you have what you need to write.
Get Organized - It Saves Time!
If your paper or talk is relatively short and only requires a few supporting pieces of documentation, you can probably keep your book and journal articles citations written down on paper. Be sure to keep complete "citations" for everything you read - check those citations before you return the book to the library or before you leave the photocopy/printer with your article.
For books a complete citation includes the:
publisher of the book,
place where the publisher is headquartered, and
date of publication.
If you will be citing only portions of the book, be sure to keep track of the page numbers.
For journal articles a complete citation includes the:
author(s) of the article,
title of the article,
title of the journal,
pages the article appeared on, and
date of publication.
Some citations styles, such as APA, are now requiring the DOI (digital object identifier) of the article; DOIs are found on the online versions and look something like this:
Style Manuals and Citation Guides
Both style manuals and citation guides explain how to format bibliographies; a bibliography is the list of books and journal articles you cited in your paper or talk. Your instructor will tell you in what style or format s/he wants your bibliography. In college, the two most popular styles are MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association) with the later style being preferred for many areas of engineering.
For more information about MLA and APA styles, see the libguide Citation Styles.
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