Scientific Modeling

Last year my fellow Earth Science teacher and I set off into the dark (or at least it felt like it) to figure out how to really move towards the aims in the Next Generation Science Standards. We accomplished a lot, but were at a loss with scientific modeling.

When we reached this standard (NGSS HS-ESS1-1) we were completely stumped:

Develop a model based on evidence to illustrate the life span of the sun and the role of nuclear fusion in the sun’s core to release energy that eventually reaches Earth in the form of radiation. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the energy transfer mechanisms that allow energy from nuclear fusion in the sun’s core to reach Earth. Examples of evidence for the model include observations of the masses and lifetimes of other stars, as well as the way s that the sun’s radiation varies due to sudden solar flares (“space weather”), the 11- year sunspot cycle, and non-cyclic variations over centuries.] [Assessment Boundary : Assessment does not include details of the atomic and sub-atomic processes involved with the sun’s nuclear fusion.]

We didn’t know what such a model would look like, especially in a freshmen Earth Science class. While the life span of a the sun and nuclear fusion and its resulting energy are directly related we couldn’t wrap out heads around how to make a single model (illustrated, mathematical, or otherwise) around that.

While we were trying to plow ahead we lacked the support to do so. What was really expected out of a scientific model? How should we use them and have the students create them? What depth were these things looking for? While we tried to move forward in considering the aims and depth of the standards, the cross cutting concepts, the science and engineering practices, this was a big conceptual change in how we taught.

Our district wanted us to start to make this change with no support and no guidance. We did what we could and I am proud of how much we did accomplish and how much we learned.

I am thankful of the NSTA articles about incorporating modeling that gave me guidance in the first place. I am still thankful that my current district had a training session just about scientific modeling over the summer which gave me better expectations of what these models should look like and the confidence to incorporate this into my classroom.

Today I confidently have my students create models of concepts with little specific guidance on what those models should look like (i.e. no just copying down the water cycle here).

Before Spring Break we were discussing thermal energy looking at two blocks, one aluminum and one plastic foam. If you haven’t seen this the ice on the aluminum lets in minutes while the one on plastic foam has little to no change.

The students worked in groups to model what was going on with thermal energy for the two blocks.

We’ve done modeling before and my main guidance is “it doesn’t need to look pretty, your only aim is to explain it the best you can.” And they did an awesome job with that.

Even better than the models themselves or the students going around to ‘grade’ and comment on the other groups, is that it let me really easily see where the remaining misconceptions were. If you look closely one of those examples has the energy movement going the wrong way, this issue came up in a few groups throughout the day along with some other misconceptions.

I learned that the importance to the activity is the modeling itself. It involves taking ideas and generalizing them. It involves connecting concepts. And in this case it involved collaboration within their groups. While not all the models are perfect, the students left not only having had practice in making models, but in interpreting models given to them (when viewing the other groups.)

While I still have a lot to learn about scientific modeling and steps to take in implementing the aims of NGSS I remain happy with my progress.


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