5. RESEARCH METHODS

5.3 Defining the Scope of your Project

Often, when you are first given a project, the problem is fairly general and open-ended. This allows you to approach the problem in a variety of ways, but also requires you to do some work to decide which particular approach you will take. Most projects will require careful consideration of scope.

Who is your audience? What is your purpose? What are the limitations placed on what can be expected or achieved? What are the constraints you have to work within? Clearly, no project will be relevant to all people in all places at all times. You must define the scope by considering:

  • Who is your primary audience? Who else might read this?
  • What is the best format to use to present this project to these readers? (what format or specific information have they requested?)
  • What is the specific outcome you want this document or project to achieve? What do you want your readers to do, think, or decide after reading it?
  • Who are the people who will be affected by this project? Who are stakeholders?
  • Are there limitations (or a potential to apply limits) in terms of geography, demographics, or available technology? Could you consider a Pilot Project or Beta-Test?
  • Is there a time frame? A budget?
  • Are there legal considerations, regulations, policies, and guidelines that must be taken into account?

Your project will first require background research to clearly define the problem you are tackling. How do you know there is a problem? What measurable impacts can you point to? What will you need to prove that this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed? Can you provide data to show the extent of the “unsatisfactory situation” and how it negatively affects people? Is there an expected goal or target that any proposed solution is expected to meet?

The process of coming up with a focused idea for your research can take many forms. Strategies for narrowing and focusing include the following:

  • Freewriting:  write for 10 minutes straight without stopping or self-editing
  • Mind-mapping or Concept-mapping:  create a graphic organizer listing ideas and indicating how they are connected
  • Questioning:  who, what, where, when, why, how? What do I already know? What do I need to find out?
  • Brainstorming:  list all ideas without censoring or rejecting any, no matter how ridiculous they might seem at first.

In engineering fields, projects most often take a Problem-Solution approach. This entails clearly defining the problem in as open-ended a way as is feasible, possibly considering its causes and effects, and potentially coming up with or evaluating solution ideas.

In presenting your solution, you will have to find research to provide support for the basic premise of your research question (is this idea feasible?) and prove your hypothesis (it will be effective/beneficial). You might do this by showing that similar ideas have been implemented and/or researched in other areas, or that the ideas you are presenting are based on sound evidence. Collecting your own primary data (such as a questionnaire or site visit) may also help show how your ideas are feasible in the local community context.

Using appropriate methods and finding the right sort of research allows you to convince people that your ideas have validity and merit, and that the knowledge you have acquired or created is evidence-based. Research gives you the tools to inform and persuade by doing the following:

  • Categorize, Classify
  • Describe, Document
  • Explain, Analyze, Evaluate
  • Compare, Correlate
  • Predict

The first step in most projects is figuring out what you don’t know and what you need to know. Without this basic context work, it’s difficult to work your way to finding relevant sources that can help you apply and analyze information and data from sources, and synthesize them into your own argument or recommendation.

A problem-solving approach offers many ways to narrow your focus. Try creating a concept map like in Figure 5.3.1 to get a sense of the many ways you might approach your topic, and then narrow down your focus to one of those approaches. This will help you think of key words to use in your search for sources. The more you brainstorm, the more potential key words and synonyms you can come up with. The “mind map” below shows various ways to consider the larger context of your problem and find a specific area to focus on.

Hand-drawn concept map with "Climate Change" in the bubble, and several ideas radiating from it.
Figure 5.3.1 Concept map for refining a topic on climate change.[1] [Image description]

This kind of “graphic brainstorming” can help you consider many different ways your topic can be approached. You can ask questions such as how? why? who? to further extend this exploration. Your goal here is to narrow down your focus to one “bubble” (that is perhaps 3 or 4 nodes away from your central topic node) that can afford a promising topic while limiting the scope to something you can accomplish in the given time frame and assignment specifications (word count, research requirement, goal, etc).

Clearly you can’t solve the problem of climate change in one paper or project. And no reasonable instructor or employer would expect you to. However, you might be asked to explore effective ways to reduce carbon emissions in a specific industry in a given period of time and/or geographical region. Or you might investigate whether a particular form of alternative energy would be effective in a particular situation. Even then, you would have to consider approaches. Would you recommend changing a policy or law to try to address the causes of the problem? Providing incentives to industry or consumers? Innovating a current technology or process? Creating a new technology or process? Evaluating a currently proposed solution?

Researching what other people working in this field have studied and written about can help you refine your focus and choose how you want to “participate in this conversation.” The ultimate aim is to narrow your topic enough to provide a specific question to guide your research and identify key words and terminology related to your topic. A good research question should be somewhat open ended; that is, the answer should not be a simple “yes” or “no.” The focus of your research question should allow you to provide a comprehensive answer that takes context into careful consideration.

Figure 5.3.2 shows a more specifically problem-based approach to concept mapping the general idea and finding areas of potential focus.  A good focus for a paper or project will likely be 3-4 nodes away from the central problem box.

A problem-based approach to concept mapping. Image description available
Figure 5.3.2 Refining your project scope using a problem-based approach to concept mapping. [Image description]

You generally cannot cover all of these issues in one paper or project. Try to narrow your focus so that you can research a specific aspect of the topic in-depth. Choose one specific focus (proposing a solution), and consider what other aspects must be included (defining the problem; choosing a specific demographic or geographical area to focus on).

As an example, consider the issue of Climate Change and how it might fit into each of these “narrowing your focus” categories.

Examples of Narrowing the Focus on Climate Change Topics

Define the Problem

Several years ago, research focused on defining the problem, and convincing the general public and government officials that a problem exists and is serious enough that we must start working on solutions immediately. Now, the vast majority of scientists and researchers accept that a problem exists: the climate is indeed warming and this is a problem. Ongoing research might determine ways to convince people who are not yet convinced and ways to motivate people to take the problem seriously enough to consider changing their behaviour or policies.

Identify Causes

In the last few years, there has been controversy over what the CAUSES of this problem are. Is climate change a naturally occurring, cyclical phenomenon or “anthropogenic” (human-caused)? Research has convinced most people that climate change is anthropogenic: that human consumption of fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change.

Research is ongoing about what kinds of activities (fracking, building dams, etc.) might contribute more or less to climate change. Research might also consider effective ways to modify human behaviour in order to slow down those causes.

Identify Effects

Much research currently explores the effects of climate change, and even how we can determine what specific effects can be the direct effect of climate change. This can be done from many different disciplinary approaches. For example:

  • Social justice research explores how certain groups of people (based on geography or socio-economic status) are impacted more severely than others.

  • Political theorists may explore how different government types create different kinds of policies in response to the problem.

  • In economics, researchers might try to predict how climate change may affect certain aspects of the global or local markets.

  • In psychology, researchers might explore how people respond to the idea of climate change (e.g.: stress, depression, motivation, etc.

  • Environmental researchers have numerous possible topics!  For example, how is climate change affecting a particular species in a particular region?  What impact might this have on the local ecology or human society?  How should building standards in coastal areas be adapted for climate change?      

Explore Solutions

Research questions—such as “Are Carbon Taxes and Caps an Effective Way to Reduce GHS Emissions?” and “Will Developed Nations Taxes Help Developing Countries Develop Low Carbon Technologies?”—analyze the effectiveness of proposed or currently implemented solutions. Some research compares the effectiveness of two possible solutions. Some propose new solutions (Tidal Power or AI controlled systems to enhance efficiency). Some might propose implementation of previous solutions in new contexts.

Why Project Proposals Might be Rejected

A proposal or recommendation needs research to convince the reader that the idea is worth pursuing or implementing. A project proposal could be rejected for any of the of following reasons related to insufficient research:

  • Unclear Problem:  research problem is not clearly defined so research plan has no clear focus (your ideas is too vague and not well though out)
  • Unnecessary Project:  this issue is already well-known or the problem has already been solved (or is in the process of being solved). For example, proposing that the school cafeteria should replace plastic cutlery with compostable cutlery, when it has already done so, would result in a rejected proposal.
  • Impractical Scope:  access to information, resources, and equipment needed to complete your proposed study may not be available; adequate conclusions cannot be reached in designated time frame and resources available. For example, if you propose to do a study that will take 2 years, but your project is due in 2 months, the proposal will be rejected.

As you can see, research will be needed in all stages and sections of your project.

EXERCISE 5.1 Background research

Think of a problem you have recently encountered on campus – something that caused inconvenience, unnecessary cost, or some other “unsatisfactory situation” for you. What kind of research would you have to do to prove

  1. that this is a significant problem that needs solving?
  2. that it affects a large number of people, not just you?
  3. that this situation has tangible, measurable, negative consequences?

How would you convince someone in a position of authority (ie. “Decision-makers”) that they should apply time and resources to remedy this situation?

Use the relevant Library Guide [2] and [3] to help you determine where you can find appropriate sources to research this problem in more depth.

Image descriptions

Figure 5.3.1 image description:

A concept map to brainstorm topics related to climate change.

Climate change

  • is caused by
    • natural processes
    • human activities, such as
      • population increases
      • burning fossil fuels
  • evidence
    • rising sea levels
    • melting glaciers
    • warming oceans
      • which impact animal habitat (e.g., polar bears)
  • can be managed by
    • changed consumer behaviour, such as
      • recycling
    • further scientific research
    • environmental laws and policies, such as
      • political action
      • carbon taxes

[Return to Figure 5.3.1]

Figure 5.3.2 image description:

A problem based approach to concept mapping.

What is the central problem or issue you are researching?

  1. Define the problem.
    1. Are people aware of the problem? Do you need to create awareness?
    2. Is the current situation misunderstood?
  2. Identify causes.
    1. Need to create awareness?
    2. Known causes
    3. Yet to be determined?
    4. Controversial?
  3. Identify effects.
    1. Environmental
    2. Political
    3. Social
    4. Economic
  4. Look at solutions.
    1. Propose a solution
    2. Compare or evaluate proposed solutions
    3. Critique proposed solutions
    4. Consider disciplinary approaches

[Return to Figure 5.3.2]


  1. [Concept Map]. [Online]. Available: http://libguides.uvic.ca/c.php?g=256802&p=3906769
  2. ENGR 120 Library Guide [Online]. University of Victoria Library. Available :  http://libguides.uvic.ca/engr120
  3. ENGR 240 Library Guide [Online]. University of Victoria Library. Available: http://libguides.uvic.ca/engr240

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Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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