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Research on the Utility of Abstraction as a Guiding Principle for Learning about the Nature of Models in Science Education

With the help of a $449,849 grant awarded by the National Science Foundation, Daniel Capps will conduct a three-year study to advance students’ understanding of what models are, while also enhancing the instruction of science educators.

Even though abstraction is a well-acknowledged characteristic of models, researchers and science educators traditionally have not used this idea to support instruction since students oftentimes have a hard time grasping abstract concepts.

In addition to researching the potential value of abstraction as a guiding principle for learning about the nature of scientific models, Capps, and co-principal investigator Jonathan Shemwell, an associate professor of education at the University of Alabama, will explore how abstraction in modeling is impacted by contextual factors, such as differences in schools and teachers.

The project will directly impact at least 1,000 students in Georgia and Alabama, as well as several dozen high school teachers who will learn how to teach about the nature of models, either by participating in the study or by attending related professional development activities.

  • Sponsor
    National Science Foundation
  • Principal investigator
    Daniel K. Capps
    Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator for Science Education, Mathematics and Science Education
  • Active since
    May 2017

Research Lab page   Visit the Project Website


The Discovery Research P-12 program (DRK-12) seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools (RMTs). Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects. Contemporary science education reforms consider modeling as a means to understanding science ideas and as an essential scientific practice to be learned. Modeling is the practice of developing and refining representations (or “models”) as analogs of scientific phenomena. Important to the practice of modeling is the idea that, as an analog, a model draws out (or “abstracts”) some as opposed to all aspects of a phenomenon. However, a well-known problem in modeling instruction is that leaners have difficulty understanding this essential point. Learners often think of models as literal interpretations, or replicas, of what they represent. The investigators hypothesize that engaging students in a process of abstraction – that is, drawing out common structures from multiple scientific phenomena – during the creation (or “synthesis”) of their own model will help students better understand the nature of scientific models. Importantly, this approach will help students discover that a scientific model is not simply a literal interpretation, or replica, of any single phenomenon. Sixteen teachers and their estimated 960 students from economically challenged communities in Georgia and Maine will participate in and benefit from the research study in the context of high school earth and environmental science classes. The project will develop a short instructional sequence and new student learning assessments that are implemented in earth science classes. The findings will help the field to understand whether the process of abstracting from multiple phenomena during model construction supports students’ understanding of scientific models in relation to earth science ideas and the cross-cutting concept of scale. The project will provide professional development workshops to up to forty-six teachers over three years as means of recruiting research participants and to cultivate teacher leadership around the new approach to modeling. The developed products and the research findings will be shared with researchers, teacher educators, and teachers through science education journals and conferences.

This Exploratory Learning Strand research study builds upon prior work of investigators at the University of Georgia and the University of Maine by rigorously testing their hypothesis that that engaging students in the process of abstracting from multiple source phenomena during model synthesis supports more scientifically accurate understandings of the nature of models. The research has the potential to (1) generate new knowledge about the potential value of abstraction as a guiding principle of learning about models and modeling practice; (2) identify ways in which specific classroom conditions, including teacher talk and actions, enable or hinder student learning about abstraction in models and modeling practice; and (3) demonstrate how teachers translate the modeling approach to other science disciplines they teach. Teachers will be recruited through existing partnerships with schools and through professional development workshops offered to teachers nearby the two universities. To address the first two goals, the investigators will develop and test a two-part instructional sequence that addresses core ideas in earth science and the cross-cutting concept of scale. The first component of the instructional sequence is a typical model-based inquiry, and the second component requires that students abstract structures from multiple phenomena during the synthesis of their own models. Twelve teachers and their students will be randomly assigned to either the treatment or the control group. The treatment group will experience the two-part instructional sequence. The control group will initially not experience the second component but will have an opportunity to do so at the conclusion of the study. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of classroom observations, interviews with teachers, student knowledge tests, student work, and teacher logs will be used to determine the effectiveness of abstracting during model synthesis and classroom conditions that enable or hinder students’ learning when the approach is used. To address the third goal, investigators will document the experience of four teachers as they develop and implement a similar instructional sequence in other science disciplines, providing preliminary evidence on the broader utility of the synthesis-through-abstraction approach to modeling. A new research assessment for measuring students’ understanding of the nature of models, core ideas of earth science, and the cross-cutting concept of scale may be broadly useful for future research on learning at the intersection of the three knowledge dimensions. Findings will be shared by traditional means, such as papers in peer-reviewed research and practitioner journals and conference presentations. Investigators will conduct professional development workshops for teachers in the third year to disseminate the products and findings of the research to practitioner audiences and to further cultivate participating teachers’ leadership around this novel approach to modeling practice in science education.

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