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6.3: Choosing a Focused Topic

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    Audio Version (January 2022):

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    Image by timacs on Pixabay under the Pixabay License.

    Choosing a Focused Topic 

    We can start with any general area of interest within the guidelines of the research essay prompt. See Section 11.3: Brainstorming on ways to come up with ideas. In most cases, as we research we will want to narrow our topic from this general beginning in order to be able to really dive into the conversation on the topic and consider multiple perspectives and counterarguments. We will likely learn about many subtopics as we explore our initial topic. If we read an overview of the initial topic, we can often identify subtopics by the way that overview is organized into sections. Though Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, it can be very helpful for this phase of the research process. Along the way, we can decide which we are interested in, research some more, and possibly narrow the topic yet further — all before attempting a rough draft. 

    Let’s take the example of solar energy as a general area of interest.  As we research solar energy, we will see that there are different ways of harnessing the energy--from the sun’s light and from the sun’s heat.  These correspond to the subtopics of solar photovoltaic energy and solar thermal energy. Say may decide we are more interested in solar thermal energy. We research that topic further and find that the sun’s heat can be used to heat water in buildings or to heat the ventilation system, but they can also be used to generate electricity in large solar thermal power plants using a technique called Concentrated Solar Power, or CSP. Let’s say that last use intrigues us.  However, as we start to read the technical details of how these power plants work, we realize we are more interested in the potential of these plants than in their engineering.  We are excited to read about the largest existing solar thermal power plant, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Mojave Desert of California, and we wonder how that facility can serve as a model for others. So the sequence of topics as we narrow it down goes like this:

    1. Solar energy
    2. Solar thermal energy
    3. The Concentrated Solar Power technique for using solar thermal power to generate electricity
    4. The potential renewable energy contribution of Concentrated Solar Power thermal energy plants
    5. Ivanpah Solar Power Facility as a model for renewable electricity through large-scale Concentrated Solar Power thermal energy plants

    If you are finding it hard to be specific about a topic, take a break from defining it and keep researching and brainstorming.

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    Developing a research question 

    Knowing what question we are trying to answer can help us research efficiently. Before we start, we can use our focused topic to articulate a research question

    If we already have a guess as to what our answer is likely to be, we may want to articulate that as well in what is sometimes called a working thesis. We can come up with a hypothesis that we will test against the information you find in sources as we research. Keep in mind, we may want to modify the question and the hypothesis as we learn more. 

    A good research question will be challenging or potentially arguable.  It will suggest the need for further investigation. Here are three possible research questions related to the topic above:

    • Should we build more large-scale Concentrated Solar Power thermal energy plants like the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility?
    • What are the environmental and social benefits of a large-scale Concentrated Solar Power thermal energy plant like the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility?
    • Under what circumstances will large-scale Concentrated Solar Power thermal energy plants like the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility be cost-effective choices for clean energy?

    As we research, we can revisit our research question from time to time to see if we are on track to answer it or if we need to change the question or the research.

    Practice exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Write a phrase to describe a general area of interest you would like to investigate.  Then do some preliminary online research using Wikipedia to identify subtopics.  Choose one subtopic, do some research on it, and identify an even narrower subtopic.  Create a list of at least three increasingly specific topics. Use the list above that started with solar energy as your model. 


    Written by Natalie Peterkin and Anna Mills and licensed CC BY NC 4.0.

    6.3: Choosing a Focused Topic is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.