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BIOL 101: Introduction to Biology: Fall 2020: Forming Questions & Finding Answers

What is your topic?

For this library session, you will be going through the research process from start to finish: selecting a topic, formulating an answerable question, searching for resources to address that question, developing a follow-up question, and expanding your search to address that follow-up question. 

Our starting point is a topic has many implications for public health: wildfires.  

We are going to start by creating individual concept maps documenting our current knowledge of and questions about wildfires. After we've done that, we will read a brief article to get more background knowledge, and then update our concept maps to reflect what we've learned from that article. 

Then we will talk about creating a workable research question, and choosing effective search terms and strategies.

Finally, we will do a searching exercise in pairs to track down some information related to your research question, and you will do brief presentations on what you've learned. 




 Heavy smoke continued to fill the air in Marion County, Ore. 9/14/2020 Photo by Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Concept Mapping

Concept maps are a tool to help you:

  • explore your topic;
  • discover possible lines of inquiry;
  • consider search terms;
  • brainstorm resources to investigate.

Ask yourself: what do I already know about my topic? what am I curious about? what kind of data do I need, and where am I likely to find that data?

Think about what the various perspectives are on this topic, and what you do or don't know about them. Think about who the stakeholders are: who is affected? who is studying or promoting this? What types of research has been done? how has it been promoted?

Finally, consider what you know about the resources available to you, and the types of sources that would be most helpful for you, and where might be most fruitful for you to begin your search. Are you going to search newspaper articles to try to find out about this? Are you going to look for blogs or websites on the topic? Are there government agencies that might have relevant information?

The process is simple: start with your broad topic in the center, then:

  • In the space around the central concept, write words or phrases for any relevant subtopics.
  • For each of your focus subtopics, add related terms/concepts to your map.
  • Continue to fill out your branches with ideas or questions about types of resources you may wish to start with. 


2020 Wildfires


Jamboard is a Google product that you can log into with a personal or Puget Sound account at It works sort of like a virtual whiteboard. You can upload photos, or use the 'post it note' feature to make notes. 

Here's an example jamboard that we might use to make a concept map about wildfire smoke: BIOL 1010 Fall 2020 - Wildfires

Let's work together to make a concept map about the 2020 Wildfires using this jamboard.

Gathering Background Information

How might you start learning more about a topic? Often a good place to start is by finding an overview of a topic from a trusted source, such as an article from a reputable newspaper.  You might try googling the topic plus the name of the news organization (like "New York Times" or "CNN" or "Washington Post") or if it's a regional issue and you want a local perspective, you might first try to figure out the name of some newspapers or TV stations local to the area and then search for those. 

Formulating a research question & search strategies

Let's re-visit your concept map. What would you add to it now that you've read this article on the topic? 

Once you've explored your topic thoroughly via the concept mapping exercise, your next step is to narrow in on a particular aspect of that topic to investigate today. In order to go from a topic to a question, you need to think about a few factors:

  • Is your question answerable?
  • How is it measurable? 
  • Is it 'worth exploring'?

Think about how you can make your searching most effective. Using your concept map and your research question, generate a list of search terms and strategies that you can use to investigate your research question. 

  • What are the key concepts that you'll use as search terms?
  • Who are the stakeholders for this question: who is affected by this issue? Who cares about this issue? Who tracks or studies this issue? 
  • What types of information resources might be useful to you in answering this questions: where are you going to look?

Searching Exercise

Working with your partner, choose one of your research questions to investigate together. You'll spend about 15 minutes searching for a source that might help you answer that question.

  1. Go to the Biology 101 Fall 2020 Searching Exercise Google Spreadsheet and enter the research question that you have chosen to investigate. 
  2. Using your search strategies, locate, investigate & evaluate general information sources (NOT scholarly) that you feel will help you address your selected research question.
  3. Select at least one credible/reliable source, list it in the Google Spreadsheet
  4. Prepare to give a BRIEF presentation (2 minutes) to the rest of the class about the sources that you have found. You will need to include the following:
    1. A brief overview of one of your reliable sources, including
      1. Two facts or pieces of information that you have learned from this source that you feel would help you be able to answer your research question. List those facts in the Google Spreadsheet
      2. Three factors that you used to evaluate this source and decide that it is reliable, and/or one way that your reliable source was different from any unreliable sources you may have found. List those factors in the Google Spreadsheet. 
  1. Based on what you’ve learned, come up with a follow-up question that you might use for further exploration—what information needs further explanation or evidence? Write that question in the Google Spreadsheet.