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Research Station: Project Design

The following 10 steps lay out the sequence of events that often are involved in a campus-based research effort. Not all of the steps are required for every project but they show the potential range of tasks.

  1. Choosing a Topic and Research Question
  2. Working with a Campus "Client"
  3. Planning Overall Project Design and Logistics
  4. Determining Research Method
  5. Background / Literature Review
  6. Data Collection
  7. Analysis and Conclusions
  8. Written Report and Presentation
  9. Using Your Findings
  10. The future: Preserving Data, Reports, and Documents

Research, in essence, is a process of learning something new and then sharing or making use of that knowledge. Campus-focused research which serves the larger objective of "Greening the Campus" may take many forms - from simple data-collection exercises to complex, controversial projects. It is not a mysterious process, nor are most research projects difficult, expensive, or beyond the ability of most people. "Conducting a study" is simply a way of thinking about and dealing with the questions of everyday life.

The ideas and guidelines that follow are meant to assist students, faculty, and other members of the academic community develop and conduct high quality research efforts. The emphasis in this section, however, is on the design of student projects. Topics covered and advice offered take the realities of student life into account.

Jump to "Examples by Topic" for ideas about campus projects

Please Note: Right from the beginning, we want to ask for your help to improve this and other parts of the Research Station. Based on your experiences in past and current projects, tell us what to improve, remove, add, or modify. This section in particular will benefit from your insights because you are the ones who have discovered first-hand what works and what doesn't. Please contact us to share your stories. Thanks.

1. Choosing a Topic and Research Question (back to top)

In general, there are two paths to a project topic: 1) the topic is already set by a professor or organization, or 2) the topic choice is left up to students. Often, however, even if the topic area is pre-selected, the exact focus of the study will need to be determined. These decisions will be made either independently (by the researcher alone), or collaboratively (by the researcher, professor, staff person, or others).

If your are interested in energy efficiency in lighting, for example, your specific target of investigation may be to measure light levels in building hallways to see how many bulbs can be removed from fixtures yet still be within legal limits. Or perhaps your broad area of interest is composting. In order to complete a project in one semester you may need to narrow the focus to measuring weights of waste food in a cafeteria for seven days. Keeping in mind the idea of "small wins," resist the temptation to launch a huge, unwieldy project.

Research Question. Once your topic is well-defined, take time to write out the essential question, or set of questions, you will attempt to answer. Continuing the energy example above, you might ask how much electricity (and money) can be saved by de-lamping half of the fixtures in the basement corridor of Main Hall? Will the resulting light levels meet local safety codes? There are many other sub-questions that may have to be addressed before your main question can be answered, but it is important to know the key pieces of information you will ultimately need. These will keep your project on target.

There are many factors that go into narrowing your topic and research question. Here are a few:

  • Who am I doing the project for (see next section on clients) and what do they need to know?
  • How much assistance can I get from others?
  • What is the time span? How can I budget my time to ensure completion?
  • Will my research method give me the answers I need?
  • Is the project "field feasible" - that is, can it actually be conducted given constraints of time, finances, technical skills weather, and so on?
  • What obstacles am I likely to encounter?
  • Can I find or afford to buy the equipment I'll need?
  • What is (are) the most important objective(s) of this project?
  • Who will be the audience for my report?
  • How will I know when I'm done?
  • What will I do at the end?

2. Working with a Campus "Client" (back to top)

If possible, we strongly recommend collaborative or "client" projects, in which students work together with a staff, faculty, or administration member. In general, such projects address problems that a staff person needs help with and thus have a higher likelihood of achieving results. When working on a such "real-world" projects with a client, students tend to take their task more seriously. Students also benefit from the support often provided by the client such as phone access, clerical help, contact names and other resources.

Students are usually the ones who need to seek out a campus client, but it can work the other way around. Faculty or staff of a college who have projects in mind can seek out students to help them. Even if there is no specific hands-on project, students can assist with background research or in contacting other campuses or businesses to find out what initiatives worked - or didn't work - elsewhere. This kind of information can be very valuable to your client.

In collaborative projects, the client usually finalizes the specific research question. In a course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, environmental studies students were required to find a client before deciding on their projects. In the beginning, one student wanted to explore the politicized topic of animals used in biomedical research. After discovering that this was not exactly a popular topic among most university staff who work with animals, the student eventually found a willing client. The client, a small-animal researcher, had a very down-to-earth topic that he wanted explored: disposal of soiled animal bedding. He worked with the student to analyze alternatives to landfilling, an expensive and wasteful approach which had been used to dispose of animal wastes for years.

It may be helpful to think of this kind of arrangement as a client-consultant relationship. The services that students can provide - especially when backed up by the expertise of faculty - is roughly similar to the work performed by private consultants. The level of expectation is different, of course, but on many campuses students have done first-rate work of a highly professional quality. If a course or project is structured properly, students will generally rise to the occasion and produce a product that exceeds original expectations.

3. Planning Overall Project Design and Logistics (back to top)

Once the focus and scope of the project are decided, the project team - including staff or faculty "clients," preferably - can then map out the sequence of activities and draft a timeline. Given the time constraints of a semester (don't forget holidays, exam periods, football games, the end-of-semester crunch), a solid and realistic plan is needed.

An important part of every design should be ongoing evaluation and revision. The plan of action set in motion the third week of the semester may need to be altered - a little or a lot - by the seventh week. Unanticipated opportunities and obstacles often demand that a project plan be flexible and evolutionary. Few research efforts unfold exactly as first planned or imagined.

The success of your project will likely depend on setting up and sticking to a good game plan. Because practical projects are an unusual kind of course activity, most students find them more difficult to manage than traditional activities like readings, tests and papers. A concerted effort is needed at the beginning to organize and get going, and steady attention is required over a project's duration. Keeping to a schedule that includes assigned team responsibilities, out-of-class meetings, weekly progress reports, and so on will be essential. Accountability is the key. Projects are too easily put aside for a week, then another week, and another . . . until the end of the term forces a sloppy outcome or salvage operation. (See Project Tips and Pitfalls.)

4. Determining Research Method(s) (back to top)

Every project should clearly outline the method or methods that will be used to achieve its objectives. Your choice of research method determines how you approach the task of answering the reseat question(s) and the kinds of data you collect. In some projects, especially where teams of students are involved, two or more methods may be needed.

In general, there are three types of research:

Here are brief descriptions and examples of each:

Descriptive Research (back to Determining Research Methods)

Some projects need to find out such things as "How much or how many?" or "What's going on?" The research, then, concentrates on describing a situation or documenting quantities. A survey of student knowledge or opinions, for example, measures what students know or how they feel about a certain topic. An analysis of the trash in a dumpster may be used to determine the percentage of recyclable paper that could be recovered through recycling. An interview with a retired physical plant director to find out about campus energy management in the 1950s creates a verbal snapshot of that place and time. The number and relative abundance of invasive plant species on campus can be documented through a botanical field inventory. In general, descriptive research is the most common type, and it helps establish baseline information that can be used for decision-making.

Comparative Research (back to Determining Research Methods)

Another common project method is making a comparison between two or more situations or quantities. This is done especially when the researcher is trying to figure out the before-and-after consequences of a change, or how something has varied over time. Comparisons are often used to try to find out "why?" Using a survey to compare environmental knowledge of freshmen versus seniors, for example, may illustrate that seniors know more facts. Comparing electricity usage in a building before and after energy efficient fixtures were installed can help show the cost benefit of the retrofit. But often the exact reasons for observed differences will be hard to establish. It must always be kept in mind that many factors may be responsible for the differences noted in the comparison.

Experimental Research (back to Determining Research Methods)

In a project that involves an experiment, a "control" situation is compared to an "experimental" situation. Each situation needs to be identical except for a single factor or "variable." Considerable care must be taken to ensure that any differences observed are due to the one "variable" that differs between the two settings. At one campus, when setting up an experiment to compare jamming rates between recycled paper versus virgin paper in photocopy machines, it had to be shown that the only variable was the paper. The student used two identical machines and each was used the same amount over the same period. When jamming rates proved similar, office staff made the switch to using all recycled paper in the machines. True experimental research is fairly uncommon because of the difficulty in determining - with certainty - that a particular factor definitely caused something else to happen. This is especially true when the variable in the experiment is human behavior.

Quantitative Data (back to Determining Research Methods)

Regardless the method chosen for a project, quantitative data is the kind of information you can count, list, or otherwise "quantify." The kilowatt-hours of electricity saved when computers use their Energy Star conservation features can be measured precisely with a watt-meter or line-logger. The amount of time required for custodians to collect recyclables can be gauged with a stopwatch. A transportation survey can determine the percentage of employees who drive their car to campus each week. As with all data, however, the methods used to collect it will affect its degree of accuracy and dependability. See Step 6 on data collection below.

Qualitative Data (back to Determining Research Methods)

This type of data cannot be measured or quantified, but it may be essential to your project nonetheless. Qualitative data generally refers to people-information: opinions, impressions, attitudes, experiences and so on. It also includes descriptive case studies or observations of specific events or circumstances. It is usually person- or situation-specific, as in an interview when someone is asked to describe their experiences or recall a historical event. While qualitative information is often interesting by itself, its greater value comes when this "data" is analyzed, revealing the trends or patterns that emerge across cases.

Information-Gathering Projects (back to Determining Research Methods)

Many—likely most—campus-focused student projects are designed to collect and report information on a specific environmental topic. Typically, a written report with a list of recommendations, often summarized in an in-class presentation, is the "product" of the effort. Increasingly, copies of these reports are appearing on the internet. Many projects intend from the beginning to be information-gathering exercises - ideally for the benefit of a staff person or administrator who requested the data. Some projects may end up in this category, unexpectedly, when time runs out before an intended action or implementation can take place.

If the information collected is accurate and dependable, the project can be considered a success. Often, baseline information on such things as energy costs, volumes of hazardous chemicals, current behavioral obstacles to recycling, and so forth are needed before a change or program can be launched. Comprehensive campus environmental audits are sometimes conducted with this background-information function in mind, but unless there are people identified who agree to make use of an audit's findings, it may be filed away and never used. A project can span several semesters or years if faculty or staff members are willing to provide the continuity. Some colleges have used on-campus outdoor study sites for decades to do ecological studies or bird inventories. In these cases, successive classes of students add their year's findings to the growing body of data. Once a study is completed and its information is delivered to the right hands, the project's findings might make a good story for the campus or city newspaper. This is a way to leverage your work to reach a broader audience.

Action/Product-oriented Projects (back to Determining Research Methods)

Projects that set out to achieve a practical outcome within a semester's time are the rarest type. Their topic is narrowly defined and very carefully chosen to ensure a greater likelihood of successful completion. Good planning and firm adherence to a schedule are generally required. A helpful approach in designing an action-oriented project is to structure it so that a "small win" is the result. Psychologist Karl Weick, who coined the "small wins" term, defines it this way:

A small win is a concrete, complete outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of small wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. A series of small wins is also more structurally sound than a large win because small wins are stable building blocks.
Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win. When a solution is put into place, the next solvable problem often becomes more visible. Additional resources flow toward winners, which means that slightly larger wins can be attempted.

It has been suggested that project-based courses might work best if they span a whole academic year. Often most of a semester is spent just getting familiar with the territory and setting up a project's design. The second semester could then be dedicated to field-testing and implementing the action or product.

How to decide on method?

Projects can combine methods and data-collection approaches in many ways. For example, a comparative project might use both quantitative and qualitative data and result in a changed college policy. As an illustration, suppose a class was assisting their college composting facility in designing a better method for collecting food wastes from the cafeteria. The project might include testing two different methods of collection, measuring the weights recovered (quantitative data) through each method. Interviews with students and kitchen staff would be done to ascertain levels of satisfaction (qualitative information) with each approach. The findings would be analyzed, factoring in economic and logistic concerns, resulting in a new method of collecting waste to be implemented the following semester.

Finding out about the pros and cons of different methods - in part based on the experiences of others - may help ensure the viability your project. Read about approaches used in similar projects either on your campus or elsewhere. Scan the web, check project descriptions and reports from projects, and read accounts of environmental initiatives that are reported in books and articles. A place to start is the Research Station's Bibliography and Project Topic Ideas and Examples section.

5. Background/Literature Review (back to top)

All research builds upon work done in the past. Thus, it is important to know what events led to the current situation on your campus and what research or project efforts have preceded yours. If you can't find much on your topic, you could ask for ideas though the Green Schools email list-serve or contact Campus Ecology.

Be sure to check:

Staff, faculty, administrators and students who may have the information you need, or can steer you to the right people and places
Files, records, photographs and other documentary sources on campus
Previous student project reports from your campus and from elsewhere
Books, articles, reports in the library and on the web. Look for technical information on your topic as well as project reports from other campuses. See Bibliography.
Campus environmental listserves, such as Green Schools. See Bibliography.

6. Data Collection (back to top)

The objective of some projects is simply to measure something and report the findings. In others, data is collected in order to be able to make well-informed recommendations or take action. As outlined in Step 4, data are typically either qualitative or quantitative and are used to describe a situation, compare two or more phenomena, or defend an experimental hypothesis.

Common data collection methods

Several complimentary methods may be needed in a project, of course, especially if a large team is working collaboratively. Your research question, project design, and anticipated outcomes will help guide your data collection strategy. It will help to review your ideas with faculty, teaching assistants or staff who are familiar with the nuances of effective data collection and management. Many courses are taught on the topic of research, especially at larger schools - and helpful advice can likely be found.

Direct measurement (counting, weighing, measuring, timing) (back to Data Collection)

Many projects will involve some form of data collection that is more or less hands-on. You may want to know the percentages of recyclables and trash in office versus hallway refuse bins - and the only way to know the answer is to sort, count and weigh everything in those bins. Finding out how many bikes are on campus will require a crew of people and a tightly-orchestrated counting scheme. Determining how much water is actually being wasted through a leaky faucet will require catching those drips over a period of time and converting the amount to gallons per day. Acquiring this kind of data can be interesting and satisfying, but also challenging. You may want to know something but lack the tools to properly measure it. Documenting changes in electricity consumption, for example, may require the use of high-tech meters that measure and record kilowatt-hours over time, but your campus may not have the right meter. College staff and faculty, local and state government offices, and even private businesses can be contacted for advice and technical help. If you look for reports of projects that are similar to yours, you will be able to borrow ideas for data collection methods.

Document analysis (back to Data Collection)

Projects often deal with research reports, lists of numbers, old records, tables, graphs, photographs, invoices and other documentary materials related to the topic. Often, important records exist but are hard to locate, difficult to understand, or tedious to sort through. Chances are that nobody ever thought to organize information in the way that you need it, so that organizing effort will fall on your shoulders. Locating and going over utility bills to determine campus energy usage over the past 50 years, for example, may be next to impossible to do. On the other hand, such information may already be available. Even if the data isn't in a form you can use, just asking for it may prompt campus staff persons to start keeping better records so they will be better prepared the next time such questions come up. In reporting data from any source, always note its title, date, and location so future researchers can check your facts or get access to the same material.

Surveys (back to Data Collection)

Questionnaires, surveys or polls are popular data-collection methods if you want to find out what people know or think about something. The trouble is they are over-used as a method, often poorly designed and tested, and yield "data" of questionable value. Surveys might be used to inquire about students' knowledge of environmental concepts, or their use of natural areas on campus. Email surveys have been sent to faculty to ask a variety of questions, but usually the response rate is low. Often, the number of people surveyed is too small, or not very representative of the target population, and thus the numbers generated from responses may not capture the reality that a project seeks to ascertain. In addition, how questions are phrased often influences the answers that are given. So use this method cautiously, and only after testing and evaluating with a pilot group of respondents.

Observation (back to Data Collection)

This method is sometimes used to note a variety of human behaviors. In one study, student classroom-littering habits were observed from the back of the room, with notes made about which classes seemed to deposit more trash and how comments from professors helped curb the problem. Often, observations are required to document certain behaviors, or count the frequencies of events. As a project method, the drawbacks are the lengthy time involved and differences in perception among observers who observe the same thing. Its advantages include the enjoyment of doing "fieldwork" and the value of interesting and unexpected findings. As with surveys, it helps to run one or more pilot tests of the observation process, to make sure that it provides adequate, accurate information.

Interviews / Phone calls (back to Data Collection)

Collecting information from someone through an interview can be a time-consuming and rambling process, but it can also be a powerful way to capture the meaning and importance of past events. Interviewers must prepare questions carefully and try to stick to them despite the temptation to head off in unexpected directions as a conversation evolves. Audio-taping an interview is the best method for capturing good quotes and getting information with complete accuracy. Making written notes tends to slow down the flow of ideas. It is essential that tapes and notes be reviewed soon after the interview, to make sure that key ideas were covered. It is sometimes necessary to contact people with follow-up questions. Comparing responses from several interviews allows researchers to spot patterns and inconsistencies - which may strengthen the conclusions that can be drawn from the data.

A very common form of fact-finding "mini-interview" is the phone call or email query. If you need to know how many students live on campus or how laboratory chemicals are ordered, a short call or email message may be all that is required. Often these conversations yield more data than you were looking for, and every exchange helps build relationships with knowledgeable people. Take notes as you talk and always go over those notes right away to fill in missing parts or add comments about your informant.

7. Analysis and Conclusions (back to top)

The process of analysis starts the moment your data begins to arrive. Ask: Does it make sense? Will it be enough? Is it accurate? Can I defend these numbers? You will likely need to tinker with data collection methods as you go to make sure they actually "collect" what you want them to.

Other questions to consider:

  • Did you answer or adequately address your original research question?
  • Where are the weaknesses in the data and research design?
  • What data are most meaningful, and which are worth using?
  • How will you present the data (lists, tables, bar, and pie charts)?
  • What unintended findings came up, and what do they mean?

Findings and conclusions should clearly be linked to your data. Always keep in mind the original research question; it will help you stay focused on the information that is most useful in answering it. Long lists of supporting data, relevant background material, and other findings can be included in a report, but should be put at the end in an appendix. Be sure your conclusion(s) - the "so-what" of your project - is well-supported by your work.

8. Written Report and Presentation (back to top)

Perhaps the most valuable thing you can do is record in writing your project experience and findings. These documents can be kept, shared, learned from, and improved upon. Without a tangible, permanent product, your project becomes like so many other college course tasks - good for a grade but for no larger purpose.

Click to see Report Guidelines for suggested components in preparing project proposals and reports. These guidelines were drawn from handouts used in a campus-focused research course.

9. Using Your Findings (back to top)

Ideally, your project will make a difference; it will leave its mark on campus. In 1993, an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sought to convince the university to include a "How to Recycle This Booklet" notice in its printed course timetable. By the semester's end, the student had secured the promise of the publications office to insert the new notification. (The notice encouraged users to recycle old copies in campus newspaper bins or with the city's recycling program.) Another student contributed artistically to the effort, creating a cartoon illustrating the two recycling choices. Both students graduated long ago, but their work still appears on the inside cover of the timetable each semester.

What you will do with your project should be carefully thought out at the beginning, so that by the end-of-semester rush you will know exactly what to do and will have allowed time for it. Keep open the possibility of unexpected uses, of course. Some student projects yield such interesting findings that campus and city newspapers pick up on the story.

Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Submitting your report and data to your client
  • Summarizing your project and findings onto a one-page fact sheet
  • Making recommendations for change
  • Initiating a new activity, program or action
  • Writing a news story about your project and its findings or action

10. The Future: Preserving Data, Reports, and Documents (back to top)

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a seminar series in Spring 1999 explored the environmental history of the campus. The occasion was the university's sesquicentennial, its 150th birthday. Were there any student papers from the 1800s on the topic of the campus environment? Of course not, but what little we know about that time was captured in rare diaries, history books, and memoirs. Beginning in the early 1990s however, the Environmental Studies library began collecting campus-focused project reports done by students. There are now over a hundred such reports on file as well as copies of documents related to UW's natural areas, water and energy use, transportation, and waste management. Imagine what a gold mine this information will be for the campus bicentennial or tricentennial! But will that resource still be there? Such long-term thinking is important to not only learn from our own history, but to document changes over time.

While it will be tempting to mount reports only on the internet, do not forget to ensure the survival of your work over the long haul. The internet has only been a major resource since the mid 1990s and nobody knows what will happen to all that information over the next few years, much less over the next century. For all its ills, printed paper offers the best option for long-term storage, and archive quality acid-free paper is your best choice.

Perhaps one of the first "projects" that should be undertaken at any college or university is to set up an archives for campus-related environmental data, reports and documents. Such a collection should be accessible to future generations of researchers - students, faculty and staff - which means that it must be preserved as well as kept. At UW-Madison, original copies of reports are stored in a secure archives. Copies of the originals are put out for public use. A set of ring-binders holds this public collection and a printed topic index helps visitors find what they are looking for. Future plans are to make reports - or at least the index - available on the internet, expanding their accessibility and utility.

NEXT: Examples by Topic

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