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Developing and Using Models

Models are used in both science and engineering as tools for understanding. The wide range of models used in science and engineering includes, but is not limited to, conceptual models such as drawings and diagrams, maps, three-dimensional structures, physical scale models, mathematical formulas, analogies, computer simulations, and mental models. Models may not correspond directly to the system being modeled, but can they help to simplify complex concepts, make visible what is too small or too large for the human eye to take in, or highlight a particular aspect of a system. All models have limitations, which are important for students to recognize and understand. Conceptual models can help students develop mental models, deepening their understanding and learning.


In science models are used to represent systems, or parts of systems, in order to study and communicate ideas about those systems. Models in science help scientists make predictions about how systems will behave under given conditions. Scientific models can be refined and readjusted based on new data. In engineering, models are used to analyze and refine existing systems. These models can be used to test design features and communicate those features to others.


Marine and aquatic scientists use models for a variety reasons. For example, computer models are used to describe and predict ocean current and weather patterns (Fig. 1). Biologists use diagrams and three-dimensional models to represent the anatomies and life cycles of many different organisms (Fig. 2). Diagrams are also used by aquatic scientists to represent how matter and energy move through an environment (Fig. 3). Ocean engineers use models to design and test new instruments and devices (Fig. 4).

<p>Fig. 1.&nbsp;A model is used to visualize currents off of the coast of Florida.</p><br />
<p>Fig. 2.&nbsp;A diagram shows the anatomy of a shark.</p><br />

<p>Fig. 3.&nbsp;Diagram of the water cycle.</p><br />
<p>Fig. 4.&nbsp;A large-scale model of a wave power converter off the coast of Scotland.</p><br />

According to the framework, students should be able to begin modeling in the earliest grades, using pictures or physical models. As students progress, they should be able to create and use increasingly abstract or more sophisticate models. Students should be able to refine their models as their understanding develops, and to understand the limitations of models. Through classroom instruction, the roles and use of models should be explicitly taught, and students should be provided with the opportunities and tools to create scientific and engineering models.


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Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.