It’s awesome when it happens. A new concept or idea for something to solve a problem for yourself or someone else just popped into your head (more on that here). For me the hair stands up on my neck and I want to run to the nearest person and tell them the idea and why it’s important. Evidently I have a crazy look on my face when this happens because it’s scared people before. Here’s the deal — excitement like this is contagious, and unless you’re careful to get your ducks in a row, it could lead to false hope/promises and unmet expectations.
What I’ve noticed over the years is that despite all of our emphasis on the scientific method/process in K-12, few engineers know how to quickly turn an idea or concept into a testable hypothesis, proposal, and research publication. In MME we wait until the last semester of the senior year to put all of these pieces together, which doesn’t help precocious young students trying to do laboratory research. So here’s a quick 5 point process to help you turn the crank and efficiently turn the idea into reality.
- Introductory Problem Statement: Who has a problem? What is the problem? When does it occur? Where? Why? If done right you can write a single sentence less than 22 words in length that covers all of these. Examples here. It needs to be said with relevancy, credibility, and efficiency. Make me believe that this is the most important thing I could be reading or doing right now.
- Literature Review/Prior Art/Gap in Knowledge: Why is this a persistent problem? What has been done before that has led to the current issue. What is the gap in knowledge that prevents the problem from being solved? Do a quick search. Start a binning process to sort all of the information into a couple of different paradigms or concepts. Goal is to find a recent review article that summarizes everything that has been done, and what hasn’t been done. Once you find a good article, search it’s table of contents and use Google Scholar to find all of the papers that cited that paper later in time (search forwards and backwards in time from a good article). In about 30 minutes or so you’ll know if your idea has been thoroughly evaluated or not. More information on literature reviews here.
- Theory/Hypothesis/Concept: This brings us back to your idea. You likely already knew a problem existed and a little bit about what had been tried before, but probably didn’t carefully formulate the above two points. This is where conventional K-12 teaching of the scientific method goes wrong. We start the process here, not realizing that students seldom have the necessary experience to know of a problem and what has been done that results in the idea. We’re led to believe that this stroke of insight just happens to certain people and not others, which is wrong. It can be practiced and trained following this method. Regardless, you’ve had an idea. Now it’s time to formulate this as a testable hypothesis: “If this then that.” We want to see a result that effects our problem in a meaningful way and believe that if “this” certain thing occurs, then it will effect “that” problem. Remember that a meaningful hypothesis is testable — you can quantify some variable and gather evidence to show decisively whether or not the hypothesis is true or not. This can become an open ended fishing expedition if you’re not careful. Do very preliminary calculations or estimates to show that the potential exists for your hypothesis to be true and that you’ve identified the underlying physical mechanism by which it the potential could occur. When done well you’ll use these basic calculations to target your upcoming tests for maximum sensitivity and likelihood to show decisively whether the theory/hypothesis is true or not. More on theory/hypothesis formulation here.
- Experiment/Simulation/Test: Now that you’ve covered the ground work, you should know fairly simply what the physical phenomena is that you are testing and what level of resolution you need to determine the result of your hypothesis. Be minimalist and efficient with this next step. Done obfuscate (cloud or obstruct) your results by trying to do too much. What is the key measurement that matters most and what is it sensitive to? Ok, now put together a test plan procedure, assess the sensitivity and traceability of your instruments/tools, show how you’re are analyzing your uncertainty/confidence, and cleanly show us the results.
- Results/Conclusions/Recommendations: Well? Did you generate knowledge to fill the gap and solve the problem? Or did you learn something concrete that we can take into the next test? Why did this matter? Don’t waste this opportunity if your test didn’t go well. Document it so someone else doesn’t waste our time and precious resources trying the same thing. More on this here.
As you can see this process is iterative. We all need you to find out as quickly and efficiently as possible what the results of your idea are. This means you need to start the 5 points above as five sentences (that’s an abstract), build them into five paragraphs (that’s a proposal pitch), then build those into five sections (that’s a journal publication), if things are still cranking build these five sections into chapters (that’s called a Thesis or Dissertation). Don’t start with the slowest and least efficient Thesis or Dissertation. Start small and learn fast. Go into the lab and (safely) make a quick prototype of your concept at the 5 sentence stage. See if the key physical mechanism shows a result. This will give you considerable confidence and motivation to do more work, and better as the momentum builds.
Know that this process above is one of continuous improvement. As my advisor John Pfotenhauer once quipped, “Oh Jake, research never ends. It’s just that at some point someone quits paying you to keep doing it!” With this structure established from the beginning you can quickly add information as you generate it, and iterate the process as quickly as possible. At some point you’ve generated enough new knowledge to advance humanity, publish a paper, and may’be even a patent. At some point you solve a problem that helps someone.
Please don’t keep us waiting!