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Research Guides@Tufts

Engineering: Senior Project and Thesis Toolkit

Tufts Sources on Theses

Below are sources for writing undergraduate theses at Tufts.  Make sure to contact your department chair for any departmental specific requirements.

Developing a Search Strategy

Engineering projects typically focus on design and project planning.  Embedded within this are many facts, statistics, theories, and other information, which requires working with a potentially wide range of materials.  To access the most appropriate sources, you want to develop an effective research strategy to answer your questions.

Here are some steps for starting your research process:

  • Determine what information you need.  Sometimes this is a specific fact or statistic, such as the properties of a certain material, statistics about a target market population for a new product, or the most convenient vendors for a particular product.  Other times, you may need to determine the state of the research on an emerging technology.  At the start of your senior project, you may simply be trying to determine what your project is about. Regardless, develop criteria for the information you need.
  • Convert your research needs into tangible and manageable questions.  For example, a very broad issue such as the impact of rising sea levels on the build infrastructure can be broken into questions about the locations and projected increase in sea levels within a certain time frame, geographic locations, building codes, materials, and precedents for flood management.
  • Parse out or "chunk" your natural language phrases into terms that computer-based search engines and databases can handle.  For example, a question about the transmission rates through skin via optical telemetry can be separated about into search terms such "transmission rates" and skin and telemetry.  In addition, determine synonyms and related phrases for the search terms, e.g. transcutaneous or subcutaneous for skin, receivers for transmission or power transfer for transmission, and biotelemtry for telemetry.  You can also add terms that might help narrow the search, according to your particular focus or context, such as, for this example, remote implants or medical monitoring. (Sketching out the possibilities on a sheet of paper or a form like the Keyword Searching Worksheet helps in brainstorming possibilities).
  • Determine what organizations or people might provide the information you seek.  These aren't necessarily in the engineering disciplines.  They may be actual or potential consumers, government agencies, associations, manufacturers, and other "stakeholders."  Then look for publishers and authors which fall into these groups.
  • Test your search terms in various sources.  Observe which search strategies work and which yield nothing.  If a search is almost successful, try tweaking it by modifying the terms or using them in different search fields, such as abstract, title, or keyword.
  • Track your research.  You need to do this for any references that you will might cite in your final project but you also want to track strategies that were or weren't successful and to note why you rejected certain sources so you don't waste time revisiting them.  You can track the process with a spreadsheet or you can use a citation tool like RefWorks.

Some Search Tips:

  • Very rarely do search strategies work on the first try without modification, unless you are looking for something very basic and factual, such as a telephone number or nomenclature for a chemical formula.  Try and try again.
  • Follow clues (which are often hyperlinked) in your search results.  Follow up on authors, institutions, publications, and additional but relevant terms.  Some databases let you follow the "chain" of research that an article participates in by providing links to the references cited in the article and to other articles which cite your article.
  • Tailor your search terms to the source at hand.  When searching about a certain pesticide in a chemical database, for example, you might use chemical structure terms such as a CAS registry number (50-92-3) or the full chemical name (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) while in a news database, you might look for materials referencing DDT.
  • Many databases let you "save" your search strategies for use in future search sessions (you may have to set up a personal account to do this). You may be able to get alerts on new articles that match your search criteria; these can be sent to you via email or RSS feeds.
  • To ensure the credibility of important facts and conclusions you come across, compare what multiple sources have to say.

Ideas for Projects

Many of the resources offered by Tisch Library can help you identify a project topic and develop it.  Some good starting points include:

  • General publications in engineering and science.  These include general periodicals such as Nature and Science as well as leading titles in the major engineering disciplines, such as those published by ACM, ASCE, ASME, IEEE, and SIAM, among others. Note: with these sources, look not only at their journals but also their websites, newsletters, and topics featured in upcoming conferences.
  • Trade journals in engineering or in target markets, such as health services, medical devices, or transportation.  Many of these are published by trade or professional associations.
  • News databases, such as Factiva, LexisNexis, or Academic OneFile.  These track trends, highlight new discoveries, and new markets.
  • Databases, such as Issues and Controversies and CQ Public Affairs Collection, that focus on current events, issues, and controversies from global warming to current epidemics -- needs that engineers can provide solutions for.
  • Patents, which document new inventions and highlight what potential competitors have designed.
  • Sources that focus on product failures or limits, thereby highlighting the need for better "mousetraps."  These range from consumer-oriented publications, such as Consumer Reports, to publications by various Federal Government agencies that track public safety.
  • Tisch Subject Research Guides.  These cover major resources in various disciplines taught at Tufts, from Anthropology to Urban Planning and can direct you to sources in a target market or application.


Subject Guide

Kristin Lee's picture
Kristin Lee
Tisch Library

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