Choosing topics for undergraduate, semester-long research projects

Here's what Greg Hancock writes about choosing topics his students will research during his Surface Processes class. You may also jump ahead to some examples that fit these criteria, or see some of the resulting posters.

The selection of appropriate research topics is critical to the success of this research assignment. I use several criteria:

  1. It must be a topic that I am interested in potentially expanding later, or at least interested in developing new class assignments/field trips on the topic;
  2. I must be able to frame the topic as a simple question/hypothesis that students can answer with a minimal amount of data;
  3. The materials (e.g., maps, field tools, computational needs) must be readily available to the students;
  4. The techniques to be used (e.g., reading maps, surveying) must be understood by the students already, or will be taught during the course of the class; and
  5. The topic must be one that I will touch on in lecture at some point during the class.
All of the projects are local (within ~100 miles) so that students can visit their field sites on a weekend day or several. In some cases, projects may be experiments that are done on campus.

One of the more challenging criteria is the one regarding techniques, since students don't yet have many research tools. Since the questions that I ask are related to surface processes, the kinds of techniques my projects rely on include things like digitizing river and hillslope profiles from maps, surveying topography using hand level, rod, and tape measures, using a Brunton to measure strike and dip, and reading bedrock and surficial geologic maps. Students also need to be able to work with the computer programs that will allow them to compile, analyze, and create figures with their data. I use both Excel and Kaleidagraph extensively in the course, so they are trained in these two spreadsheet and graphing programs. All of these are simple and easy to teach if the students have not picked them up already, are taught as part of the general course, and require readily available and hard-to-destroy equipment. I learned the hard way to avoid questions that require students to be trained in a complex new technique outside of class, or to loan them equipment that was easily damaged!!

A few of Greg's suggested research topics, from his assignment handout. (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 32kB Oct6 05)

Are hurricanes significant geomorphic events?

Hurricane Isabel caused remarkable damage in the form of tree fall, and much material was moved as a consequence of tree throw. How much soil was moved? How does this translate into an erosion rate?

What do terraces along the South Anna River suggest about river history?

Terraces have been identified, but little effort has been made to correlate these terraces along the river and interpret their meaning.

How old are scarps of the Coastal Plain?

This region is littered with now-diffuse scarps of varying size—what are these scarps, and how old might they be?

Are Blue Ridge wind gaps really abandoned stream valleys?

Several high gaps in the Blue Ridge are inferred to be old river valley floors, now abandoned as a consequence of stream capture—is this a reasonable hypothesis, and is there some simple data collection that may help resolve this issue?

Are periglacial features of the central Appalachians active or relict?

Many high peaks of the central Appalachians are broad surfaces inferred to be relict periglacial surfaces—what features suggest these might be relicts of colder climates?

Are knickpoints moving through the Piedmont?

The Piedmont is oft thought of as a landscape in steady state owing to long periods of denudation, but knickpoints are found on several streams. Is the Piedmont being rejuvenated by knickpoints moving through the stream systems?

What is the Fall Zone, and why is it there?

How does the James River erode the Petersburg Granite in the Fall Zone?

In the Fall Zone in Richmond, the James has formed many spectacular and large potholes, leading many to suggest that this is the primary way this river drills into the underlying rock. How do potholes form, are there controls on their formation, and is there evidence that other processes may act here, too?

Or a topic of your interest....