How to Use Models

Initial Publication Date: December 21, 2006
In thinking about how to incorporate modeling activities into introductory geoscience courses, there are two important classes of considerations: technical and pedagogical.

Technical Considerations include:

  • Acquiring the models or ideas in a useable form.
  • Identification and use of the proper equipment for physical demonstration models.
  • In the case of mathematical models, computers simulations of analogous systems, visualization models, or statistical models one must learn how to operate and manipulate the modeling environment or software.

These technical considerations are clarified under our discussions related to each specific type of model.

Pedagogical Considerations

There are several things to keep in mind when using or creating modeling activities for instruction.

  • Keep the activity as interactive as possible. When you find that you're spending a majority of your time lecturing to the students about what to do or how things work, try to think of ways you can get them working through ideas in groups, lab, interactive lectures, etc.
  • Including students in the development process and/or providing opportunities for them to experiment with the model or modify it can increase students' understanding of the model and its relationship to the physical world.
  • Creating opportunities for students to analyze and comment on the models behavior increases their understanding of the relationships between different inputs and rates.
  • Creating opportunities for students to validate the model, i.e. compare model predictions to observations, increases their understanding of its limits.
  • Stress that models are not reality and that a model's purpose is to help bridge the gap between observations and the real world. An important reason to use a model is that you can perform experiments with models without harming the system of interest.
  • Make sure that students think about the underlying assumptions of a model and the domain of applicability. Try to ask questions that can help check their understanding. For example, simple exponential growth assumes that the percent growth rate remains fixed and in real world systems it only applies for so long before the system becomes overstressed. Having students identify underlying assumptions of a model and their domain of applicability can help them gain an appreciation of what a model can and cannot do.
  • Models can be used to introduce specific content. A model can introduce students to important terms as well as provide an environment to explore relevant processes.
  • Models can be used to explore "What-if" scenarios. "What if Atmospheric CO2 doubles?" is a common example for a climate model.
  • Models can be used explore the sensitivity of a system to variations in its different components.
Modeling Methodology for Physics Teachers ( This site may be offline. ) (1998) provides general guidelines for using models in physics instruction that are quite applicable to geoscience instruction, particularly in Box 2 of Hestenes' document. Box 7 of Modeling Methodology for Physics Teachers ( This site may be offline. ) (1998) outlines important aspects of the model construction process.

Other Resources

It is important that the learning environment and activities created around a model provide an interactive engagement experience. Try to avoid passive modeling activities where students simply watch a model simulation or animation without having to think or do anything.