Practice 2: Developing and Using Models
To engage fully in this practice, students should be comfortable with each other and trust that their models will be met by their peers and teachers with an open mind and a lack of judgment of them as a person. Instructional strategies that support students’ feelings of belonging cultivate a safe space for students to: (1) develop, use, and evaluate their own models, and (2) use these models to communicate with others as they figure out phenomena and design solutions to problems. Strategies that support belonging also encourage students to develop a sense of being part of a community of scientists and engineers, which is especially important for students who may not have a well-developed science identity or who may feel alienated from science [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity]. As students begin to feel a greater sense of belonging within their science classroom community and within science and engineering communities, they may feel more inclined to engage in the practices of modeling.
Models are a reflection of a scientist’s or engineer’s current understanding of a system. Students will have varying levels of understanding throughout a learning sequence in which they develop and generate a representation of a target phenomenon or design problem, use and describe its relationships and interactions, and evaluate and determine its limitations and explanations. Throughout this process it is imperative to support students’ confidence in developing, using, and evaluating a model as they move from potentially naive understanding to more sophisticated understanding of a system. Students may also lack prior experience engaging in scientific or engineering modeling practices, as they may not have encountered this in previous science classes. Science and engineering teachers, therefore, have an important role to play in supporting the confidence of students in learning this particular practice.
Models help make thinking/understanding visible to oneself and to others, which supports the development and revision of scientific ideas. There are numerous ways to develop representations of the same phenomenon or design problem, which can raise important questions and clarifications; developing a model is not about producing the one “right” representation. Instructional supports for a learning orientation help students adopt these perspectives. Additionally, models should be evaluated and revised over time as understanding develops. A learning orientation supports this kind of ongoing evaluation and revision of models and scientific ideas: with a learning orientation, early/naive models are not “wrong;” they are steps in the process of gaining understanding.
Developing models involves reflection and opportunities for evaluation and iteration, which requires students to make decisions and direct the modeling process in order to understand a phenomenon or solve a design problem. It is important that students have the autonomy to make choices about their models that are consequential to their science learning and to the representation of scientific phenomena (e.g., inclusion of mechanisms, components of a system, representations of components, or relationships that can be used to explain or predict phenomena), rather than merely making choices about surface features of the model (color, size, materials, etc.). Additionally, multiple representations of the same phenomenon or design problem can be valid, so promoting students’ autonomous model development is critical to authentic scientific and engineering practice.
Developing and using models requires students to grasp the key features of the phenomenon or design problem under investigation, a potentially challenging task for students. When students see relevance in the models they are developing and using, they are more likely to put effort into the task. Seeing that models are useful for making sense of a phenomenon or solving a design problem that relates to their everyday interests and/or experiences gives students a compelling reason to engage in future model making. This motivation can be especially important for students who identify with communities that have been marginalized or disenfranchised in science, as it empowers them to use scientific modeling as a tool for understanding phenomena or solving problems related to issues they care about [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity].