Polygence blog / Research Opportunities and Ideas

Idea Generation Techniques for Research Projects

11 minute read

sign that says "turn ideas into reality"

Often, the first few ideas for a project are not the best. We can often miss hidden connections or overlook more exciting opportunities. Idea generation techniques can help you dig deeper, past the more obvious or cliched ideas, and into exciting new territory. In this post, we’ll go over the techniques of brainstorming, mind mapping, SCAMPER, random word, role reversal, visualization, and idea combinations, all powerful tools to stimulate creative thinking.

It’s important to harness the power of diverse idea generation if you want to come up with an innovative project. But descriptions of these techniques might not easily translate to your process. That’s why we’ll also give you specific examples of how other students have used these techniques for research in many different fields, such as comp sci, biology, product design, environmental activism, business, and history.

1. Brainstorming: Fostering Open Idea Sharing

Brainstorming is such an effective way of generating ideas that we wrote a whole post about it. The basic idea of brainstorming is free-associating as many connected thoughts as you can while withholding any judgment. The goal here is quantity. Quality comes later. 

Brainstorming is particularly effective in groups because your combined efforts can produce more ideas faster than when you’re brainstorming alone. One person's idea can also trigger another person's thoughts and creativity, leading to a chain reaction that might not have emerged in an individual brainstorming session.

You can incorporate any of the other 6 techniques in this post in your brainstorming session, done alone or with others. Mind mapping is, in fact, just a visual form of brainstorming.

Steps for brainstorming

  • Define the problem you want to brainstorm. 

  • Create a quiet environment with the tools you need to capture thoughts quickly and accurately.

  • Set a time limit.

  • Defer judgment by adopting a “yes, and…” policy as they do in improv.

  • Aim for as many ideas as possible.

  • Pick out your most promising ideas only after the session is over.

Example: using brainstorming to generate a Computer Science project idea

Jessie isn’t sure what kind of project she wants to do, but she loves music and is intrigued by the possibilities of AI. That’s a good enough place to start. As her brainstorming question, she comes up with: How can AI help an aspect of musical creation, performance, or distribution? She writes this on top of a white board.

She gets together with a band friend and her brother who is a great programmer and knows a lot about AI. They agree to say any questions or ideas that come into their heads and jot them down on sticky notes. Nobody is allowed to shoot down any idea at this point. They give themselves 60 minutes to simply riff on ideas without worrying about how Jessie would actually get it done. Here are a few examples of things they write on stickies. 

brainstorming whiteboard example

Some are new questions, some are thoughts, some are topical issues. Some are related to each other and others aren’t. But the main thing is that they all address AI and music, and they help Jessie start to narrow in on a more specific idea that she can get really excited about and start to research further. 

2. Mind Mapping: Visualizing Connections and Relationships

Mind maps are a great way to organize and represent connections between ideas visually. They can be used to help you organize complex topics when you’re studying for an exam, but they can also be great brainstorming tools. (You’ve probably also seen mind maps on bulletin boards in detective shows as they gather suspects, evidence, and clues.) Because they are non-linear, they can reveal hidden connections and help you develop more creative, unexpected ideas. Mind maps generally start with a central idea and then branch out to related thoughts, keywords, or connections. There are many great free online tools you can use now for mind mapping (FigJam, Miro, and MindMeister come to mind), but good old fashioned paper and pencil works great too. 

Steps for mind mapping

  • At the center of your mind map, start with a basic topic, problem, or question.

  • Start to free-associate subtopics or solutions and connect them to the central topic with branches. 

  • Explore each subtopic and add more ideas around them.

  • Try to use concise words and/or images to keep the mind map from getting too convoluted.

  • Keep exploring connections. Allow yourself to freely associate and add ideas as they come to you.

Example: using mind mapping to generate a Biology project idea

Logan is interested in gut health and how it can impact your immune system as well as your mental health. He does a brainstorming session in which he mind-maps all of the different factors of the human microbiome that he knows about and that interest him. As he’s working on the mind map, he’s also looking things up online and adding new ideas and facts as he discovers them.

Here is his mind map (done in MindMeister):

mind mapping example

Looking at his mind map, Logan sees a correlation between his interest in microbial diversity and improved immune system, and begins to wonder if something as simple as eating probiotics such as yogurt, sauerkraut, or miso could help you fight viral infections like COVID-19 and other diseases. Ater filling out this mind map, he can connect specific areas of interest to each other and do a bit more research as he plans out a specific hypothesis and strategy for his project.

It’s a good idea to keep all of your original mind maps, even after you have started your project. You never know when you might have to pivot in a slightly different direction or want to try new combinations as you learn more about your topic. 

3. SCAMPER Technique: Stimulating Creativity Through Alteration

SCAMPER is an acronym for a set of thought experiment prompts you can use to come up with unexpected ideas. You can use it during a brainstorming or mind mapping session to get you moving in a different direction if you feel stuck.

What SCAMPER stands for

Substitute

Combine 

Adapt 

Modify 

Put to another use 

Eliminate 

Reverse/Rearrange

Example: using the SCAMPER technique to generate a Product Design project idea

Shamir is interested in product design and helping refugees who have been seeking shelter and camping in his community. Here’s an example of how he used the SCAMPER technique to brainstorm various small products he could gather into a helpful kit. 

He starts with the basic question: "What are some products we can create or collect to help refugees with their daily struggles?”

This is what he comes up with:

Substitute: First, he considers substituting something critical that they would need in daily life with something else. What if you substitute traditional cooking methods with portable and efficient solar-powered cookstoves? Or replace traditional water collection methods with lightweight, collapsible water containers for easier transport?

Combine: Next, he thinks about ways to combine different things they might need together into one thing. You could combine a wearable translation device with a language learning app to help refugees communicate and learn the local language. Or combine a basic mobile phone with a preloaded app for accessing important information about local services, healthcare, and education.

Adapt: He looks at items refugees already were using and wondered how he could adapt and evolve a better design to solve problems. A backpack could be adapted to include solar panels for charging electronic devices, ensuring refugees can stay connected even in remote areas. A traditional tent could be adapted to be more easily assembled and lightweight.

Modify: Similarly, he explores ways to modify or alter existing tools and products to make them even more useful and solve specific problems. A basic first aid kit should include instructions in multiple languages and contain culturally sensitive medical supplies. Simple clothing design could include built-in pockets for storing personal documents securely.

Put to another use: He also wonders how products out in the world could be repurposed in the context of the refugee shelter. Thinking on a larger scale, he realizes shipping containers could be repurposed into temporary modular shelters equipped with basic amenities. Recycled materials could be used to create low-cost, sturdy school desks for children.

Eliminate: He identifies some problematic elements that can be removed or eliminated without compromising daily life. The need for traditional and possibly dangerous cooking fuels could be eliminated by introducing solar-powered, portable food heaters. Again, language barriers could be broken down by developing a user-friendly, gesture-based communication app for refugees.

Reverse/Rearrange: Finally, Shamir tries reversing the roles of certain daily items and rearranges them to see if he could come up with new insights. A portable bed used at night could be reversed into a seating area to use during the day. A traditional grocery store could be rearranged into a pop-up marketplace offering more culturally familiar foods.

4. Random Word Technique: Associating Unrelated Words for Ideas

In random word brainstorming, you create fresh or disruptive ideas by associating a random word or phrase with a problem, question, or topic you want to explore. It's another form of brainstorming that helps you break past the more predictable and overused ideas most people come up with when first exploring a subject.

There are many ways you can come up with a random word: 

  • Open a dictionary to a random page and choose the first word you see.

  • Use online tools like Miro or Random Word Generator.

  • Turn on the radio or TV and write down the first few words you hear.

  • Write down words you hear throughout the week on scraps of paper and put them in a jar. Select one.

Then, take your random word and apply it to your area of interest. What thoughts are triggered by these two combined ideas?

Example: using the random word technique to generate an Environmental Studies project idea

Sophia wants to do a project involving carbon emissions in her school and propose strategies to reduce them, but she’s stuck. She uses an online random word generator tool. She tries applying the following word to her carbon emissions topic and comes up with the following ideas.

Random word: “Forget” 

Idle Forgetfulness: Parents who drive up to the school and are waiting for their kids often forget to turn their engines off. What if she were to monitor driver behavior in the school parking lots for a week after school and calculate how much carbon emission could be reduced simply by not idling? These findings could turn into a podcast about simple changes we can make in everyday life to dramatically reduce emissions if everyone followed suit. 

Carbon Forget-Me-Not Challenge: She could develop a social media challenge that encourages individuals to document and share all the ways they reduced their carbon footprint for a day so as to not forget their efforts, inspiring others to do the same.

Forget Carbon, Remember Bicycles: Create a project that encourages communities to "forget" about cars for a day or week. During this time, people would rely solely on bicycles for transportation. The project could include events like bike parades, awards for people who manage to go car-less for a full week, maintenance workshops, and education on the benefits of cycling.

5. Role Reversal: Shifting Perspectives for Fresh Insights

Role reversal technique is another creative thought experiment that encourages you to view a problem or situation from different points of view by temporarily taking on the role of another person. It's an effective technique because it encourages you to step outside your usual thought patterns and consider viewpoints you might not have even identified or explored otherwise. For that reason, it is often used to break down mental barriers, stimulate new ideas, and promote empathy. It works best if you can work in a group so you can assign each person a role and then switch roles, but it can also work as a solo thinking endeavor. The role reversal technique is also very helpful for dealing with issues that involve diverse perspectives or complex human interactions.

How role reversal works

  • Define the problem or scenario.

  • Identify specific roles of the individuals or even inanimate objects associated with the issue.

  • Assign each person in your brainstorming session to one of these roles.

  • Each person comes up with ideas or insights from the point of view of the role they are playing.

  • Share and discuss all of these ideas.

  • Analyze the ideas as a group and identify which ones are the most promising or feasible.

Example: using role reversal to generate a Business project idea

Henry wants to set up a tech support business for the elderly people he knows who struggle to keep in touch. The problem is that he also knows they can’t afford expensive gadgets or tech services.

He goes through the role reversal process as follows:

Problem/Scenario: Elderly individuals struggle to keep in touch due to limited resources, visual impairment, and lack of tech savviness.

Multiple Perspectives to Explore:

  • The elderly individual on a limited budget - Doesn’t have the money or inclination to buy expensive new tech. Doesn’t understand how to use it even if it is gifted.

  • Younger caregiver or family member - Understands the challenges and responsibilities of caring for seniors who need tech support. They also want to be able to communicate more easily.

  • Tech enthusiast employee - Wants to be of assistance and bridge the digital divide and, of course, get paid.

  • Local community leader - Wants to promote local community initiatives that address the needs of elderly residents and get recognition for creating these initiatives.

  • Tech retailer or manufacturer - May want to explore partnerships or discounts in exchange for good press and free marketing. 

  • Social worker and/or healthcare provider - Understands the broader social, emotional, and health benefits of improved communication and tech access for the elderly. Work directly with seniors and have earned their trust.

  • Nonprofit organization representative - Might be able to use existing resources and senior programs to aid elderly individuals.

Henry combines the learnings from exploring each of these different roles, and comes up with a few tech solutions that might generate revenue while still relieving seniors from the financial burden of new tech and tech training.

This is what he comes up with:

Affordable Virtual Tech Workshops for Caregivers, Social Workers, and Healthcare Providers: Organize affordable tech workshops for family members and caregivers of the elderly, teaching them how to provide tech support. Charge a fee for workshop participation paid for by family members. This would not only generate revenue and empower seniors, but also empowers caregivers to assist their elderly family members more effectively.

Partnerships with Tech Retailers: Partner with tech retailers or manufacturers to offer discounts on tech products that are specifically useful for the elderly. The revenue would come from commissions or fees for promoting these deals. Seniors would gain access to affordable tech solutions, and the project would earn revenue through the partnership.

An Elderly-Friendly App/Device that Promotes Family Communication: Develop and sell a senior-friendly mobile app with a more senior-friendly device that helps them connect and laugh with a younger generation. This app/device could gamify the senior/youth interaction while ensuring more frequent communication and serving as a helpful health monitoring method for their caretakers. Seniors would gain access to more social involvement in their lives, and their family gets to know them better, while revenue comes from app sales and in-app purchases paid for by the younger generation and/or a software partnership.

6. Visualization: Creating Mental Imagery for Inspiration

Visualization is another thought technique that helps you tap into your subconscious creativity by pushing you to explore your imagination in novel ways. The basic gist of it is that you do a deep dive into an imaginary situation by exploring all your sensory and emotional reactions. It can be used along with any of the other idea-generation strategies in this post. For instance, you can use it to really explore each point of view of each in the key roles you identify in the role reversal exercise. You can also find guided visualizations for creativity on YouTube and Audible.

How visualization works 

  • Define the problem or goal.

  • Find a quiet and relaxing environment in which to work. 

  • Close your eyes to block out distractions. Sit or lie down.

  • Imagine a concrete scenario related to your problem or goal.

  • Start to engage all of your senses. What do you hear, feel, smell, touch, and taste in this scene? The more specific and vivid the mental picture becomes, the more effective your visualization will be. 

  • You can write your own or use a pre-recorded guided imagery script designed to stimulate creativity. These can help you stay focused and provide a structured approach to visualization.

  • Stay relaxed and patient. It’s important not to rush ideas and trust that your subconscious will provide insights when you least expect it. Even if you don’t come up with a groundbreaking idea while you’re visualizing, it may come later as a result.

  • Capture your thoughts in writing after your session. Even if the ideas feel disconnected, they might lead to unexpected ideas.

  • Try to do a few sessions over a period of time and review the ideas you’ve written down.

Example: using visualization to generate a History project idea

Corita decides to use visualization to help her explore the unexpected roles women may have played in the American Civil War.

Here is how she goes about it and what she discovers along the way:

Setting the scene: Corita closes her eyes and imagined herself standing in the midst of a Civil War-era battlefield. She can see the soldiers in uniform, hear the distant sounds of cannon fire, and feel the tension in the air.

Engaging all the senses: In this visualization, she shifts her attention to the women who are present on the battlefield. Initially, she sees them as nurses or camp followers, but she tries to look beyond these well-known roles by using all her senses.

  • Sight: She notices the women tending to the wounded, but also observes women carrying messages, delivering supplies, or even fighting disguised as soldiers.

  • Sound: She listens to the conversations and interactions between women and soldiers, paying close attention to the women's determination and resourcefulness.

  • Touch: She feels the texture of the clothing women wore during this time, and imagines the physical challenges they faced wearing skirts as they navigated through the battlefield.

Corita also allows her mind to wander. She visualizes a woman taking on a leadership role, organizing a group of women to provide critical intelligence to the army. She imagines another woman who becomes an expert sharpshooter, secretly joining a regiment and making a significant impact on the battlefield. She pictures the women who created underground networks to support escaped slaves and Union soldiers.

She then dives into the emotions and experiences of these women. She can feel their determination, courage, and commitment to their causes and understands the risks they took and the challenges they overcame.

She takes notes on all the scenarios, characters, and insights that emerge during her visualization. These notes can serve as a starting point for her research. She might look for women sharpshooters and underground leaders. Or she might research the types of clothing women wore and if they adapted their attire in order to do their jobs more efficiently. The idea is that her imagination took her to surprising potential areas of interest.

7. Idea Combination: Merging and Adapting Existing Concepts

Idea combination or idea synthesis is a creative thinking technique that involves merging or blending existing concepts or elements to generate new and innovative ideas. The smartphone, for instance, is an example of combining mobile phones, digital cameras, email, web browsers, GPS, and more into one handheld device. In chemistry, CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing came about as a combination of the discovery of CRISPER sequences, Cas Proteins, and prior gene editing techniques.  

Steps to start generating your own new hybrid solutions

  • Define the problem or goal.

  • Gather a diverse range of existing ideas, procedures, products, or concepts related to that problem or goal. These can come from research, observations, or other brainstorming sessions. Try to collect ideas from a wide range of different domains. The more diverse the ideas, the more unexpected the combination.

  • Deconstruct these ideas into their simplest parts.

  • Look for patterns, themes, or recurring elements that might appear across your collection.

  • Based on the commonalities you’ve identified, start brainstorming ways you can merge items from your list in creative ways, even if they seem unrelated at first. Think about how these combinations might lead to new and unique concepts or solutions.

Example using idea combination to generate a Medical Research project idea

Ryan is interested in developing a research project around a more well-rounded medical management plan for Type 1 Diabetes.

He uses the idea combination method to help himself expand the ideas that initially come to mind. 

Identify key elements and concepts: He begins by exploring various medicinal aspects, such as diagnosis, treatment, research, patient care, and healthcare systems for Type 1 Diabetes, so that he can clearly understand its causes, symptoms, management, and impact on individuals' lives.

Explore cross-disciplinary connections: He considers other fields or subjects that intersect with medicine and Type 1 diabetes, such as:

  • Biotechnology: He investigates innovations in insulin delivery or glucose monitoring technologies.

  • Nutrition and dietetics: He examines dietary strategies for managing blood sugar levels.

  • Psychology: He explores the emotional and psychological aspects of living with diabetes.

  • Brainstorm hybrid concepts: Next, he begins to merge his research from medicine, biotech, nutrition, and psychology to brainstorm a novel insulin delivery device that combines these insights.

Consider real-world applications: He investigates all of the existing insulin delivery devices and rates them to see how much they do or don’t address these hybrid concepts. He thinks about how these could be enhanced or a new solution developed that would address as many of the concerns he identified as possible. 

Idea Generation with Polygence

Some of the best ideas are refined through discussion, but it’s not always easy to find people able or willing to serve as a sounding board or as an additional expert source of information. You can use any or all of these techniques with a Polygence mentor. They can help provide expert feedback and guide you toward relevant information and resources. With either the Polygence Pathfinders or Launchpad Bundle, you can meet with three different mentors, float ideas with them, and get help defining your project ideas.

Final Thoughts

The freedom to come up with your very own project is exciting, but it can also be daunting. Brainstorming, mind mapping, SCAMPER, random word, role reversal, visualization, and idea combination are all great techniques for organizing your thoughts and revealing new directions and insights. 

If you want additional inspiration to get started, check out the types of research ideas that Polygence mentors have helped high school students complete. And here’s another post of passion project ideas. Or read about another technique that can help you narrow down your topic: the Japanese concept called ikigai. At Polygence, we’re here to help you unleash your creative potential and innovate on projects you can’t wait to work on.

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