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Environmental Engineering: How to Research a Topic

Guide to library and internet resources for environmental engineering

PICO:
How to formulate your research question

P = the product, process, problem or population to be studied

I = the improvement, investigation, inquiry, or intervention you plan to use on [P]

C = the comparison to either a current practice or opposing viewpoint 

O = the measurable outcome

Research Question Format:  For [P] will [I] or [C] provide [O] ?

 

Example:  In PV cells [P] does Gallium [I] or Silicon [C] provide more efficient electrical production [O]?  

Index to this guide ...

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 ...

  1. Pick a Good Topic
  2. Get Organized
  3. Build a Strong Foundation
  4. Where to Look
  5. Search Strategies (Using PICO and Keywords)
  6. Style Manuals and Citation Guides

Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 1: Pick a Good Topic

Has your instructor given you the option to pick your own research topic?  

A good topic: 

  1. Is interesting. 
    The more you enjoy the topic, the more pleasant the work will be; you may find that it's not really work at all.
     
  2. 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" or about a well known bridge? 
       
    • 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"?  
       
  3. 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 2: 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 a record of your searchs and your book and journal articles citations written down on paper such as in a notebook.  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:

  • author(s),
  • book title,
  • 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,
  • volume number,
  • issue number,
  • 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:
    • doi:10.1016/j.espr.2011.08.016
    • doi/10.1063/1.3457141

 

 

But what if your assignment is for a long paper with extensive documentation?   Instead of trying to manually keep track of everything, you need to have citation management software such as Refworks.   It's free for you because ASU has already paid for it. 

With RefWorks you can:

  1. Download or import references from research databases directly into your RefWorks account  
  2. Organize your references  
  3. Use the "Get It @ ASU" feature to go from the reference to the full text of the article
  4. Automatically format your papers and bibliographies into any of over 600 citation styles 


How to use Refworks:

  1. RefWorks is available at http://www.asu.edu/refworks.  

  2. Instructions on how to sign up, export/import from databases, setting up Write N Cite, etc. are available on the ASU RefWorks guide at
    https://libguides.asu.edu/refworks.

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. 

Start by asking yourself the broad, traditional questions: who, what, where, when, how and why? 

  • Who and/or What involve the product, process, problem or population.
    In engineering, a human population usually comes into play only in biomedical research. 
     
  • How and/or Why involve the improvement, investigation, or intervention you intend to apply to the Who and/or What.
     
  • When and/or Where involve special conditions that may effect the other questions; when or where may not be present in every research question. 

Next read to:

  • Build your knowledge base,
  • Identify trending facts, issues, cutting edge research, and 
  • Lay the foundation for asking a focused research question. 

You can get an introduction to just about any engineering concept via encyclopedias and handbooks; use the Encyclopedias and Handbooks & Manuals links under Resources tab above to find suggested resources. 

Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 4: Where to Look

As an undergraduate, you'll use primarily two types of resources:

  • Books for a broad treatment of a topic or a long in-depth treatment of a sub-field of that topic, and
  • Journal Articles for an in-depth but short treatment of a specific aspect of a topic.

For Books use the Library One Search database.
After searching your topic, use the Content Type option in the left-hand column to limit the results set to only Book/eBooks

For Journal Articles use two different databases: 

  • Library One Search 
    After searching your topic, use the Content Type option in the right-hand column to limit the results set to only Journal Articles; you may also use the Refine Your Search: Scholarly & Peer Review option at the top of the left-hand column. 
     
  • EI Compendex/Inspec
    EI Compendex indexes the engineering literature back into the 1880s; Inspec indexes the physics, electrical engineering, and computer science literature.  Using this link allows you to search both databases at the same time.  Once you have a results set, use the Document Type category in the left-hand column to limit to Journal Articles.  

Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 5: Search Strategies (Using PICO and Keywords)

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?  Well, that depends on what you're looking for! 

First, you need to focus on what your research question is.  The research question consists of 4 elements:  

  • P is the product, process, problem or population to be studied
  • I is the improvement, investigation, inquiry, or intervention you plan to use on [P]
  • C is the comparison to either a current practice or opposing viewpoint 
  • O is the measurable outcome

A general research question format may look like this:  For [P] will [I] or [C] provide [O] ?

In PV cells [P] does Gallium [I] orSilicon [C] provide more efficient electrical production [O]?  

When you search databases, you'll use the [P] AND [I] concepts from your Research Question.  The [C] and [I] concepts will help you determine which are the best entries as you browse your results set.  

  • Start with the words you use to describe [P] AND [I] and enter these in the database's search box(es)
     
  • 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 these other terms for your topic, redo your search using these new words; you'll retrieve more books/articles that are on your topic. 

 

Keep in mind that literature research is a not a linear process; it's not "search, read, write, turn it in".  You won't find all the good articles in your first try; you need to explore using different terminology that an author might use for your topic.  The search strategy is more of a cyclic "search, read, refocus, search again ..." as many times as is necessary before you'll find enough good articles that you will reference in your paper. 

Researching an Engineering Topic, Part 6: 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) and of those two, APA style works well for most engineering areas. The field of engineering as a whole does not have a preferred style but some sub-fields do (ex. IEEE Style is a common style in Electrical Engineering).   

For more information about APA style, see the library guide Citation Styles.

If your instructor specifies a different style, see the Advanced Guide for that engineering area to find links to guides for that format.

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