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RCM 300: Developing Your Topic

Understand the assignment

Make sure that you understand the expectations of your assignment. Read your assignment instructions thoughtfully and carefully. If you have questions, concerns or problems, talk with your instructor. You can certainly talk things over with classmates, but remember that the ultimate authority is your instructor...

And do it sooner rather than later!

Background reading

It doesn't matter what class or topic you are dealing with, check the following:

  • your course readings or textbook for relevant reading or background information;
  • a general encyclopedia or a more specialized one (CRC Handbook of Engineering in Medicine and Biology, Nanobiomaterials Handbook or the Handbook of Nanoscience, Engineering and Technology);
  • with the instructor about any suggested readings or references;
  • a dictionary for terminology or concepts which are in question, for example "water" in a common dictionary is very different from "water" in a engineering, medical or biological dictionary. These differences may be useful;
  • articles in popular or newstand magazines if the assignment is contemporary and topical. While these are not considered scholarly and generally frowned upon when excessively referenced in an academic research paper, they can be useful in identifying current issues.

Using Wikipedia for Academic Research

The first thing this video, created by the Cooperative Library Instruction Project, will tell you is no, you cannot cite Wikipedia as a source for your paper. However, that does not mean that Wikipedia is completely useless when it comes to researching and developing your topic. Reading articles on Wikipedia, just like any other encyclopedia, is a good way to find keywords and relevant information about your subject, which you can then use to search more effectively through the library catalogue or journal databases.

Organize approach by sub-dividing topic

As you think through your topic and do your general or background reading, make notes about how your thoughts associated to the topic could be developed. For example, an assignment on water quality might evolve by:

  1. Noting material from Water Quality and Treatment: A Handbook on Drinking Water (which is an ebook available through AccessEngineering) 
  2. Re-read sections from your textbook or the Water Resources Engineering textbook (11 books with this title are available in the Engineering Library).
  3. Reading supporting material
    read materials derived from your research in the same manner, using note cards to link relevant concepts to supporting material (literature mapping).

These notes or cards can be used as various elements of the paper are prepared. They can help organize concepts from definitions, encyclopedias and scholarly journals, as well as link these concepts to opinions or quotes from supporting research. Eventually, these same cards can be used for your footnotes or bibliography.

Narrow topic and come up with a thesis

You may wish to discuss water conservation instead of the overarching topic of water quality.  This narrows the topic to something more manageable.

A thesis statement should express your goals in writing the paper - how you interpret the assignment, what you think the major issues are, how you are going to proceed and what you expect to end up with at the end of the paper. Your thesis is NOT a restatement of the assignment as given. It is what you think is important about the assignment.

Developing a Topic Video

This short video by the Cooperative Library Instruction Project will give you more information about developing your topic and help you to consider goals, approaches, topic scope and helpful resources.