How to Use Models in Science – Examples You’ll Actually Use

How can you use models in science? It’s easy! Diagrams and 3-D representations make meaningful connections for kids. Additionally, you can weave analogies into your teaching. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Ms. Sneed Discusses Models in Science

Our favorite fourth grade teach sat at the side table with her student teacher. “Yesterday,” she said, “we began talking about the shift from the scientific method to science practices. As we discussed testable questions, we saw quite a bit of similarity to the old scientific method. However, the strategy we’ll discuss today, using and developing models, offers a different approach.”

She opened her laptop and found Appendix F, of the Next Generation Science Standards. As she looked through the section on models, Ms. Sneed paraphrased what kids in third, fourth, and fifth grades were expected to do:

“First, the document says that kids should identify the limits of models in science.

“Second, they should use analogies, examples, or abstract representations to describe scientific principles. Today, we’ll explore the types of models kids can use.

“Third, they should work collaboratively, developing models based on evidence. Additionally, they should show relationships among variables for regularly occurring events.” Ms. Sneed paused and looked at Mr. Grow. “In my opinion, this means things like phases of the moon, seasons, or even hatching of cicadas.”

After looking back at the document, Ms. Sneed continued, “Fourth, kids should develop and/or use models to describe and/or predict phenomena.

“Finally, students should test cause-effect relationships or interactions in natural systems.”

“That’s a lot to take in,” Mr. Grow said.

Ms. Sneed nodded. “Right. But when we think about examples we actually use, it gets easier.”

Analogies Make Great Models in Science

“Throughout the year, I use simple models in science teaching,” Ms. Sneed continued. “To do this, I include analogies as part of my teacher talk. Whenever I teach a concept, I compare it to something kids know.”

“Ah, tapping into background knowledge,” Mr. Grow said.

“Right. When kids make connections, conceptual understanding grows. In my opinion, mindfully including analogies improves learning.

“For example, when I introduce the electric circuit, I compare it to the circulatory system. That way, we do away with the misconception that electricity flows out of a plug in the wall. Furthermore, by comparing the battery to the heart and the wires to veins, kids get to know the parts and their functions.”

“Wow,” said Mr. Grow, “I can see how kids would think that! What other analogies do you use?”

“Well, let me think. Sound waves can be compared with a Slinky. In some cases, erosion is like sanding a board. And cells are like eggs.”

When teaching models in science, begin with analogies. For example, when teaching electrical circuits, compare it to the circulatory system.
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An Apple and the Earth: An Example

Next, Ms. Sneed turned to her laptop and clicked through some files. Finally, she found the page she was looking for. “Whenever I teach layers of the Earth, I start with an apple analogy.”

Ms. Sneed turned the screen so Mr. Grow could see. “After I cut the apples in half, students draw a cross-section diagram and label it. Then they draw a cross-section of Earth. See? Now they have an analogy, as well as two diagrams.”

“Ah, multiple models in science,” said Mr. Grow.

“Right. As they compare, they realize that the skin of the apple is really thin, just like Earth’s crust. Like I said, building conceptual understanding.”

Then she scrolled to the next page. “Here, kids compare and contrast the apple and the Earth.” She pointed to a Venn diagram.

“Additionally, they think about other objects that could be explored by models. Specifically, things that are too big, too small, or difficult to bring into a laboratory.”

Now Ms. Sneed pointed to the final question on the page. “Finally, kids consider other objects that could be used as models, or analogies, for Earth. You know, like a peach or a globe. This helps them understand limitations of a model.”

“I like this,” Mr. Grow said. “It really encourages kid to think.”

Here's a way to move from simple analogies to models in science. Have kids compare an apple and the Earth.

More Models in Science: Diagrams

“As shown in the apple lab, diagrams can be powerful models in science. For example, when kids learn about food chains and webs, they can draw examples of who eats whom. But even better, they can add and subtract organisms and predict what will happen.”

Ms. Sneed walked over to the cabinet and pulled out a few student samples. “I’ve saved these as examples.”

First, she held up a worksheet on food webs. “On this page, kids create food webs that show how energy moves through the ecosystem. Actually, this student began with the Sun, moved energy to producers, then to consumers.”

Next, she held up two food chain crafts. “Additionally, diagrams can be created as hands-on projects. Kids love the activities; I love displaying their work.”

When using models in science, consider basic pencil and paper, as well as crafts! Here you see a drawing of a food web, as well as a food chain craft.

Data Models

Now Ms. Sneed sat down next to her student teacher. As she once again clicked around on her laptop, she continued. “Another way to use models in science is through data.”

When she found what she was looking for, she motioned for Mr. Grow to look on. “Here we have a set of sunrise and sunset times for Chicago, Illinois. By figuring elapse time, kids look for patterns of daylight hours. In turn, this will allow them to understand revolution of Earth around the Sun, as well as our planet’s tilt.”

“Wow,” said Mr. Grow, “I wouldn’t have thought to use data as models in science. But now I can think of quite a few applications!”

Models in science can also be numeric. For example, this table lists sunrise and sunset times for a specific locale.

3-D Models

Once again, Ms. Sneed headed to her cabinet. After rustling around a bit, she came back with a long strip of paper, a table, and a few images. “If truth be told, I use 3-D models the least. When we study the planets, however, kids love this activity. Each child gets a strip of adding machine tape. Then then look at this table and choose small objects with relative sizes. Additionally, they measure relative distances.”

Kids can also create 3-D models. For example, here they use small objects to represent planets in our solar system.

Analyzing Models in Science

Next, she held up two pictures. “After kids learn about the sizes, positions, and motions of the planets, they analyze models like this. In my opinion, this is one of the most powerful activities teachers can do with models. When kids find similarities and differences, they better understand the concept or system.”

Sure, kids can look at models and build them, but they should also analyze them. For example, here they critique two solar system models.

Enjoy Teaching with Models

A pensive look crossed Mr. Grow’s face. Then a small smile crossed his face. “When you told me that the scientific method was replaced with new science practices, I wasn’t quite sure about it. But now I see that adding models in science also offers some great opportunities for critical thinking. Yep. I’m going to enjoy teaching with models.”

“Before we leave for the day,” said Ms. Sneed, “we’ll review the eight science practices suggested by the NGSS:

As they looked through the document, Ms. Sneed stopped. “You know,” she said, “every time I dig into these, I feel like I grow as a science educator.

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