The use of concept mapping as an effective tool for narrowing a complex, multi-dimensional project

There are many aspects to my current project that are worthy of delving into much further.  In fact, any one topic could become a complete thesis of it’s own.  That can present a daunting task to anyone trying to assimilate a mound of references and background information on a single topical area.

To create a stream of thought that unites many of the distinct topics into a cohesive picture, I found myself naturally drawn to the idea of a concept map.  I thought this recent quote from a Graduate student/scientist interaction summed it up nicely:

“Concept maps are designed to help scientists and their students communicate more clearly about the connections and relationships between climate and oceanography. For scientists, concept mapping can help them share their deep understanding of connections in the earth system not only with the “next generation” in their particular science fields, but also with a wide variety of audiences both inside and outside academics…”

[ For graduate students, learning how to concept map with an experienced scientific researcher is a unique opportunity in their own scientific development to simultaneously gain both pedagogical and content knowledge. Several students have adopted concept mapping as part of their regular “communication” with their advisors and peers. ]

I recall when this approach was discussed on the COSEE webpage and more recently I participated in a NEOSEC workshop at the 2010 Ocean Literacy Summit.  From the discussion and hands-on activity led during our workshop, I realized that these concept maps can be a valuable tool. Although I am not currently engaged in marine science education or actively teaching, I find myself using the tool for my own purposes.  I am naturally visual and enjoy writing and organizing both data and words into clearer pictures.  Despite the use of technology, and an innovative software program that will also create concept maps, I prefer to use scraps of paper or assemble the individual parts.  For people who are fanatical about post-it notes, that’s another great way to begin.  A grouping of ideas or methods can be lumped into a collection of ways to address a question.  Ultimately you can start backwards or forwards, but my suggestion would be to approach your concept map with a question (or several) in mind so that you can direct your time and energy to viable answers that may lead to problem solutions.

Consensus concept map created using the COSEE-OS Concept Map Builder

Image source

This image and others on the COSEE webpage are examples of how this approach can be useful to scientists, educators as well as school children and graduate students.  It can be adapted to a wide audience and serves a valuable purpose.  I like to adhere to the philosophy that the results you obtain are reciprocal to the effort put forth.

So, back to the project at hand.  I’m currently employing the use of concept mapping (in a crude, handmade way) to narrow my focus.  The objective is to determine which topical area I would like to present an overview of; effectively, the question will be directed towards the reference literature and how I will incorporate my understanding of the background work and methods to conduct my own analysis of a specific question related to my time series work.  Thus far I have come up with some topic areas, but I am still working on the question(s). Stay tuned for more upcoming ideas! I will post some finalized concept maps in the next few days.


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About hawright

marine ecologist

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