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GEOG 419 - Advanced Geographic Information Science: Where Do You Start?

Getting Started

Right - so you're told that you have a research paper due in your class - and that you need to take a concept through the data collection, manipulation, analysis, and representation processes so crucial to using GIS.  You'll need to present your results to the class.  

     

      

But uh...........where do you even start?????

 

Step #1 - Know Thy Topic

Just like Goildilocks discovered in her epic fairytale, you need to find the right size and the right fit.  

Some topics are TOO BIG.  I have been told by students that they are planning on writing a 5-page research paper on the American Civil War.  That, my friends, is a topic that is too big for a 5-page paper.  It's too big for even a 10-15 page paper!

Some topics can be too small.  You might not be able to squeeze a full 5-10 pages out of the problems a marine creature has related to a specific pollutant if there isn't much research out there yet on that pollutant or that marine creature.  

So, what are you to do?  

What you do is start with a concept/question and work your way down (or up) from there - like this:

1.)  For my research paper I want to look at all the effects that ChemLawn herbicides have on the Chesapeake Bay.  

      

2.)  The Chesapeake Bay is *really* big, and there are (probably) a lot of chemicals used in lawn herbicides, so maybe I should choose a region of the Bay and just one or two chemicals?

        

  3.)  What chemicals are in lawn herbicides anyway?

(.........this is actually where you move to step #2.  We'll come back to Step #1 - but for now, we're on to Step #2!)

Step #2 - What Are You Even Talking About?

For you to even be able to talk about what your topic might be, you need to first know something about the subject in general.  It's ironic, and sounds contradictory, I know - but before you can learn about your topic, you first need to know some basics about it.....

   

This is where things like books (yes, BOOKS!) come in as being insanely helpful.  

 


No, I would never EVER read a whole book on the Chesapeake Bay, or a whole book on lawn herbicides in order to get "background information" on this topic, but what I could and would and should do is look at a source like this:

 

      

.......and check out the table of contents, or the index, to see if there were 5 or 10 or 15 pages I could read over that would give me some crucial background knowledge to work with!  I could do the same thing with a book on herbicides - or an encyclopedia entry on lawn herbicides.  That would give me a short, easily readable bit to look over, and once I had read it, I'd have a clear view of what herbicides are in lawn sprays, or what chemicals are mostly thought to cause problems for the Chesapeake Bay!  And already - with just a few simple steps, I've not ony gained knowledge about my topic, but I also got a better idea of how to plan out my research strategy, and what sort of information I'll need to find overall.  

#3 - Back to the Beginning!

.....so now that you know something about your topic, you have a much better sense of what it is that you could be looking into as your research question!

In the case of our hypothetical student conducting research on lawn-spray chemicals and their impact on the Chesapeake Bay, the student now knows that some of the main chemicals impacting the Bay are phosophorous and nitrogen.....both of which are found in lawn fertilizers!

    

..........so...............?

    

Go back to Step #1!  Now that you have a better idea of your topic, you can say that your research topic is:

   

The results of too-high levels of phosophorous and nitrogen seeping into the Chesapeake Bay through  the Wicomico River via applications of lawn fertizer by residents living in the Wicomico River watershed area.

   

This is where you start looking into what research has been already done in this area!  You need to look to:

   

  • Explain your work in a scientific context -- why was this research undertaken?  What makes it worthwhile?  What makes the findings interesting?  What is new about any of this?  
  • Support your argument - what do your findings or the findings of others mean?  Are there management or theoretical consequences based on what you have found that will either impact or change the discipline?

It just isn't enough anymore to know what link to click to find journal articles on your topic, you need to *understand* what it is that you are both doing and finding. 

Subject Guide

Susan Brazer's picture
Susan Brazer
Contact:
Guerrieri Academic Commons

- Salisbury University--

Salisbury, MD

410-546-4370