Researching BIG thorny problems

Researching BIG thorny problems

By Michael Zis

How do we eliminate 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases from the world? That is a huge thorny problem, and finding answers is profoundly important. But those answers can’t just be inferred or deduced. They require research! Many of our students will take on this meaningful research project with gusto. Others, however, will be intimidated by the question’s scope and seeming technical nature.

What students need to carry out this research is a jump-start and some tools. The Climate Project gives them the jump-start with the articles and videos we provide. But students may want to continue their Grand Challenge research on their own. How can we help them do this kind of research in the classroom? How can they figure out which solutions are effective, what state they’re in now, and what their prospects are for the future? Also, how do they know which sources to trust?

To answer these and other research-related questions, I turned to Beverly Brown. Beverly has been a lead researcher on articles for the Climate Project on such topics as batteries, renewables, urban design, and electricity. She finished her bachelor’s degree in astrophysics at Harvard University in 2020, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Who better to ask than a rocket scientist?

MZ: You’ve done an incredible amount of research, and it’s so impressive. Let’s start with your research on electric car batteries and energy storage. How did you know where to begin, considering they’re continuously evolving and there’s so much information out there?

BB: It is really daunting at first. You have to accept going in that you won’t know everything. Even after I turned in my research brief, I knew that I would continue to learn about new technologies. I am just doing what I can in the time that I have.

When starting out, I liked to learn about where the solution is now. And then I went about figuring out what the upsides and downsides were of that solution.

MZ: Teachers will sometimes caution students to “not trust everything they read on the Internet” but then students will, of course, be using the Internet for their research. How did you decide what source to trust?

BB: I look at the sources they use to support their claims. I highly recommend students check out the hyperlinks in each article to see what the authors are basing their arguments on. If those links take me to primary evidence or a reputable secondary source,[1] I’m more likely to believe it than if they link to other articles farther removed from the research itself.

Sometimes, when conflicting information is presented, I just have to accept that this is something I can’t resolve on my own. So, I just try to represent that in my research as “this is what people think…,” “we’re not really sure yet,” or “it might do this or it might not,” rather than try to resolve that debate on my own.

MZ: It sounds like you do research until you can find a consensus, and if there’s no consensus, you represent that in your writing. But how do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing?

BB: A pretty big thing is when I [start to] feel pretty neutral about the topic. When I first approach a climate-change solution, I know that I am going to experience a roller coaster of emotions. At the beginning, I think the future is bright and there’s nothing that will stop this solution from being adopted. Then, I’ll go the other way, that this technology has such intense downsides that it’s not even worth pursuing. Once I get enough positives and enough negatives, and I’m at best conservatively hopeful, I know I’ve done enough research to move on.

MZ: Mechanically, how do you recommend teachers help students organize their Grand Challenges research? Should they encourage students to come up with a list of questions before going in, and then answer those?

BB: I would suggest doing that but be open to changing the structure. I always begin with questions that I want to find answers to. Then, I’ll take some time away from the research. come back to it, and see if there are other questions I might have. So, I’ll read my research, and then I’ll think, “I would like to know something more specific about this” or “actually reading this again, I don’t really understand what that means.” Then, I’ll start on round two of the research.

MZ: Looking at your research with fresh eyes really makes sense. You’ve done a series of research briefs for OER Project. Did your process change over time?

BB: The research got quicker just because all of the topics were related. Learning other topics close to your topic allows you to make connections and focus on what is important.

MZ: So, students should not just pay attention to their own Grand Challenge, but also to others. Any final advice for teachers helping students embarking on their Grand Challenges research?

BB: For teachers, advise students to reconfirm their research with sources that are less than six months old because the technologies are evolving so quickly.

For students, don’t be afraid to do research on the outskirts of your Grand Challenge focus. It can often seem like time wasted, but science is so interdisciplinary that it can be hard even for scientists to predict what information will be relevant during research. If it doesn’t come up later, no worries, and if it does, it’s because you were able to make an interesting connection!

About the author: Michael Zis taught in the Political Science and Environmental Studies departments at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, from 2003 to 2022.  He also represented Macalester at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Scotland.

Cover image: Composite image: Oil Refinery factory, petrochemical plant © CHUNYIP WONG / E+ / Getty Images and vector silhouettes of various African Acacia branches with leaves and thorns, © Lindybug / iStock / Getty Images.

[1]Primary sources are records of events or evidence as they were first described. Examples include a scholarly journal's original research, firsthand newspaper accounts, interviews, diaries, and some government documents. Secondary sources are sources such as books or opinion-based articles that analyze, summarize, or interpret primary sources or information that originated elsewhere.