Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Editor's Corner

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Editor's Corner

Article excerpt

What Is a Scientific Model?

Fashion models, role models, economic models. Model organisms, 3D models, climate models, model airplanes. Model cars and car models. We use the term model in so many ways in everyday speech, it's no wonder students are often confused when we talk about models in science class. It doesn't help when teachers use "model" to describe everything from a student's Jell-O model of the cell to a physical model of the solar system or a textbook diagram of the atom.

What is a scientific model? Christina Schwarz and Cynthia Passmore (2012) identify what models are not: Art projects, physical replicas, posters, and diagrams are not really scientific models, although they can be valuable learning experiences. Schwarz and Passmore point out that a true scientific model must be useful to explain natural phenomena and make predictions. "If the 'model' is purely descriptive and doesn't help to answer a question about how, or why, then it isn't a scientific model" (p. 48).

In every scientific discipline, the most important overall goal is to develop understanding of how the natural world works through the construction of scientific models. These conceptual models "allow scientists and engineers to better visualize and understand a phenomenon under investigation or develop a possible solution to a design problem" (NRC 2012, p. 56). Scientific models can be in vivo (living models), in vitro (in glassware), in situ ("on site"), or, increasingly, in silico (computer models). …

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