Why are Models Useful?

Initial Publication Date: December 21, 2006

Why are models important and useful for students?

Modeling Methodology for Physics Teachers ( This site may be offline. ) (1998) offers one of the most compelling reasons to use models in an introductory geoscience classroom. "Scientific practice involves the construction, validation and application of scientific models, so science instruction should be designed to engage students in making and using models."

In addition:

  • Models provide an environment for interactive student engagement. Evidence from science education research shows that significant learning gains are achieved when students participate in interactive engagement activities. Thus, it is important that the learning environment/activity created around a model provide an interactive engagement experience.
  • Working with models can enhance systems thinking abilities
  • Models and model development are useful for helping students learn quantitative skills such as graphing, graphical analysis, and visualization; statistics; computational skills, mathematics, ......
  • Many models allow one to perform sensitivity studies to assess how changes in key system variables alter the system's dynamic behavior. Such sensitivity studies can help one identify leverage points of a system to either help one affect a desire change with a minimum effort or to help estimate the risks or benefits associated with proposed or accidental changes in a system.
  • Earth System Models such as those at Earth-System Models of Intermediate Complexity (more info) allow us to perform experiments related to the Earth System without altering and potentially harming the actual Earth. Many experiments, like understanding the future effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide increase, are taking place in the actual Earth System today but the results of these will not be know for 50 to 100 years. An Earth System model can run several such simulations using different assumptions in a matter of hours to days. The same is true for most models.
  • The knowledge gained while using models and the understanding of model development and implementation are transferable to other disciplines related to the Earth system.

Other References supporting the usefulness of models for instruction

Demo Dozen at Creative Learning Exchange has some good information regarding the philosophy and usefulness of modeling activities in education. Download the Demo Dozen package towards the bottom of this page and open intro with Stella II. A free demo version of Stella II is available at ISEE Systems (more info)

Climate Sensitivity Research Lounge (more info)

Systems thinking: critical thinking skills for the 1990s and beyond (more info) Barry Richmond, 1993. in System Dynamics Review, Vol. 9, no. 2.

Examples of Climate Sensitivity Research Lounge (more info) research and links to publications.

Modeling Earth Processes using Spreadsheets and Commercial Models (PowerPoint 526kB May14 03) from 1st DLESE workshop presentation by William Locke/David Mogk Dept. of Earth Sciences Montana State University, Bozeman MT.