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What Are Conceptual Models?

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Created by Bob MacKay, Clark College

People receive information, process this information, and respond accordingly many times each day. This sort of processing of information is essentially a conceptual model (or mental model) of how things in our surrounding environment work.

Several short examples of conceptual models can help better define them.

Blue Shy Conceptual Model Red Sky Conceptual Model

Red sun-sets and blue skies. The intensity of scattered light from the atmosphere increases with decreasing wavelength. In fact the intensity of scattered light is inversely proportional to the 4th power of wavelength. [The intensity of 450 nm blue light is more than 4 times larger than that of 650 nm red light]. The observer on the left sees a blue sky when looking up and the observer on the red sees a reddish sun. More detail can be given and this can be extended into a mathematical model. However for many introductory atmospheric science classes this is a good starting point. More information on sky color (more info) .

This argument in favor of a significant carbon taxis another example of a mental model. At present the cost of fossil fuel combustion does not include the direct health costs associated with respiratory ailments linked to photochemical smog in urban areas or the costs associated with other environmental problems such as acid rain or possible long-term climate changes. A significant carbon tax will better reflect the true cost of fossil fuels to the citizens; pay at the pump now or pay taxes later to support increased demands on the health care system. Such a carbon tax will increase the cost of fossil fuel energy sources making alternative energy sources like solar, wind, hydrogen fuel cells, and tidal more economically competitive. This will help shift our economy from its near exclusive use of fossil fuels towards cleaner more efficient fuels, which will ultimate cut global carbon emissions. The reduced carbon emissions will help curtail the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In addition, other harmful byproducts of fossil fuel combustion, particularly in urban areas, will be reduced.

Manual of Synoptic Satellite Meteorology - Menu of All Available Conceptual Models (more info)

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