I like to let my students choose their research paper topics, unlike some of my colleagues who assign topics. I believe if students are interested in their topics, they will be more fully engaged and get more out of the whole process. With a topic they care about, they are less likely to view the assignment as hoop jumping, and invest more energy and time into it.
That said, it has never worked well just to say, "Choose whatever you want to write about." Most students are like deer in the headlights - they have no idea where to go or where to start. I used to write a list of previous topics that worked well on the whiteboard, but that was ineffective.
What did finally work was when I gave some topic ideas, and then posed some questions to think about, along with ideas for research.
For example, most students were not excited about the topic of genetically modified foods, until I posed a few questions for thought: "Should genetically modified foods be labeled?" "What should the government's role be in oversight, testing, and labeling?" "Why would voters shoot down a proposition in California requiring labeling?" Once we talked about these, then I asked for questions about the topic to research: "What measures have other countries taken against genetically modified foods?" "What do studies show about safety?" By the end of the discussion, I had a few enthusiastic takers.
I got the idea to make a set of cards with topic ideas, questions to consider, and research ideas. This way, students can flip through them and see what speaks to them. The best thing is that most use the cards as a starting point, and end up with a unique spin on the topic.
I recommend doing this in your own classroom if you want students to choose their own topics, or you can limit the topics to a few of the cards you have made. Either way, it gets everyone off to a great start.
If you don't want to make your own, I've compiled 40 ideas that students have used successfully and put them on half-sheet cards. I've also added a full-color Power Point so you can use the ideas one at a time for discussion or response papers. Click here to see the product.