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Morgan B. Yarker, PhD, CCM



Michel d. S. Mesquita, PhD



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Science Models should be part of the K-12 Science Curriculum


There is certainly a lot of excitement over the recent release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), particularly about how the classroom dynamic will change as teachers work to incorporate them into their classrooms. I, for one, am excited about the new standards because I think they are giving our schools a slightly stronger nudge in the direction of using inquiry more effectively. Namely, making a better connection between the process of doing science and the science content. The good news is, teachers who are currently using inquiry appropriately shouldn't find the NGSS too difficult to implement, as they are probably already doing most of the things they require.


However, there is a part of the NGSS that most K-12 educators will probably struggle with, and that's the emphasis on science models.


Most people believe that models are the physical objects that teachers often used to teach science content to students, like those 3D representations of the solar system made up of painted styrofoam balls. Those are teaching models- and they are useful in many circumstances. But the NGSS wants teachers to focus on science models, which are what scientists use to actually do science.


A common example: Weather models used to forecast the weather.


Now, obviously we don't expect all K-12 students to learn how a computer model (like a forecast model) works. They are made up of lots of complicated code, mathematical formula and so many complex theories. That would be ridiculous. No, what we want is for students to understand why scientists use these models and how they help scientists do science. Isn't that the point of inquiry after all?


So it is important that teachers understand the role models play in scientific inquiry in order to teach it to their students. One of the most difficult aspects of doing science is that the natural word is a complex system. It is impossible to understand the natural world without the use of models, which can be used to isolate a single process (such as how temperature and CO2 interact with each other in the atmosphere) or combine a number of processes (such as what kind of weather systems develop when the ocean temperature changes). Doing so also allows scientists to answer questions that cannot be tested through directly observable methods. After all, changing Earth's ocean temperature just so we can watch the weather patterns change around the world is not a possible experiment. These complex computer models allow us to make changes in the Earth's system so we can see what will happen. However these models are just representations of the atmosphere, they are not the actual atmosphere. Therefore, model results will never be exactly the same as what may actually happen in the real world. However, it is usually very close, so they can provide us with a pretty good idea about give us an idea about how the world will behave given changes in certain variables. The claims scientists make after using models provides us with a better understanding of how the process works, which is what scientists refer to as making a prediction.


Based on how models are used in actual science inquiry, it is important that this process be translated into the science classroom because it is evident that general understanding of the term prediction is different from that of the scientific community. A prediction is not a guess in the scientific community. It involves the use of models, which are close representations of the actual natural process, in order to see how the world changes under certain circumstances. 


So, how do we convey this information to teachers? I believe this perspective on the process of doing science can be radically different than what most people think, hence shifting their views can be difficult and take a lot of time. Is there an effective way to go about this? I have some ideas, but I'd love to hear what others think as well. Please share your ideas and thoughts!