Deriving Common Model Characteristics

Jennifer Momsen, Tammy Long, Elena Bray Speth
Plant Biology, Michigan State University


In this activity, students brainstorm ideas about what models are (and are not) and what elements are common to most models of biological systems. Further, students derive the criteria that the learning community (instructor and student) will use to evaluate models, both those created by us and those created by others.

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Introductory biology course for undergraduate majors, focused on organisms and populations.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This activity occurs on the second day of class - we assume no prior knowledge.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity lays a foundation for the rest of the semester. We use models quite heavily in the course so it is critical that we introduce models and a framework for creating models early.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

1. Define model.
2. Derive characteristics of models in biology.
3. Analyze sample models and identify the derived characteristics.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

In this activity, students confront several different models - from the DNA helix Watson and Crick constructed in their laboratory to a map of McDonalds density in the US - and work in small groups to derive their commonalities.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students generate several concept models over the course of the semester - in class, on homework and on quizzes and exams. We often scaffold modeling problems by providing students structures and asking them to link structures with meaningful behaviors such that their model displays a specific function. By the end of the semester, modeling problems are unscaffolded and students must provide structures, behaviors and in some instances, functions.

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