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Research project explores the next top model

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Imagine your teacher asks you to create a model that explains why the Sahara Desert is dry. You create an initial model that shows how air moves and loses moisture. Then your teacher critiques it and asks you to revise it and make it better.

This iterative approach to modeling is common in science classrooms, with many teachers believing it helps students gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon at hand. "However, it also has the potential to reinforce a major problem in modeling pedagogy, which is that learners tend to see models as 'copies' of reality," says Daniel Capps, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Science Education.

Capps and his colleague, Jonathan Shemwell from the University of Alabama, aim to take on the "model as copy" problem thanks to a new grant from the National Science Foundation. This three-year project will take an innovative look at how teachers can help their students better understand what models are. "We argue that it is useful to think of models as abstractions, or ideas that are pulled away from the particular circumstances of a given source," says Capps.

To this end, he and his colleague have developed a novel approach to modeling called synthesis. In synthesis modeling, learners develop explanations—for example, for how a desert might form on the leeward side of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon or the leeward side of the Andes Mountains. The students develop these explanations using data provided to them.

Throughout the process, students study several different types of deserts and then are asked to develop a single model for how all of these deserts formed. "By making a single model that works for all of the deserts, the students will understand the underlying idea for how all deserts form," adds Capps. "At the same time, they realize that the model they created can explain how many deserts form, and it helps reinforce the idea that scientific models are not simply literal interpretations or replicas of reality."

As part of the grant, Capps and Shemwell will work with a small team of teachers from Georgia and Alabama to develop and test two modules that will help students learn that models are abstractions, not copies. The team will also provide professional development for up to 30 teachers from Georgia and Alabama who will use these modules in their teaching.

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