Reflecting on an observation of 2nd and 3rd year life-science students’ definitions of scientific models

This semester, Physics 131 is back to a 75-mintue twice-a-week schedule after some the return to in-person learning necessitated experimentation with 50-minute thrice-a-week versions, and we have confirmed what was stated in Michaelsen et al’s book on Team Based Learning: longer course sessions are vastly superior in this mode. Students have more time to explore more problems without interruption. This was manifest yesterday when I had more time to let students explore the definition of a scientific model, the results of which yielded some interesting insights.

I began yesterday’s class with an “As you are coming in..” activity which asked students to write a definition of a scientific model on a small scrap of paper. Following the think-pair-share paradigm, once class formally began, students were asked to work in an ad hoc team (we will formally form teams next week) to synthesize their results and put it on the whiteboards surrounding the room. We then did a mini-gallery-walk where each group chose a different definition and critiqued it after which each group was then permitted to revise their own definition.

The resulting definitions had a particularly surprising commonality: that models must be visual (multiple groups group actually underlined the word in their definitions). As a physicist, the idea of models having multiple representations was always somewhat natural; we are trained from early in our education that physical phenomena can be represented in various ways including graphs, equations, diagrams, words, etc. Thus, the emphasis on visuality was unexpected.

With this observation, I then changed my planned session on-the-fly to include a deeper discussion on models. We began with a spontaneous voting-card question asking if models must indeed be visual1. While the sheer presence of the question probably prompted several students to vote in the negative, there was still a significant minority who said that, “Yes, models must indeed be visual.” However, even after having an opportunity to converse with peers, students struggled to articulate other model types, generally defaulting to running through the senses. I ended up using an atom as an example showing that I can model the atom:

  • In words, “the electron orbits the nucleus held by their mutual electrical attraction.”
  • In pictures Planetary model of the hydrogen atom.
  • As a graph showing the density of the electron cloud as a function of distance (remember, all these students have completed general chemistry so they are aware that electrons are clouds) Probability density for hydrogen electrons in 1s, 2s, and 2p.
  • And as a mathematical relationship Ground state hydrogenic wave function: 1/(sqrt(pi*a^3)) e^(-r/a_0)

    Which then segued very nicely into the next planned topic for the day: math-as-language. A topic which I slightly adjusted to include “math as one language of many that we can use to represent models” which I planned to touch on later or even next class.

    After discussion with Heath Hatch, another member of our team, he too was initially surprised. However, after discussion, we both realized that for these students the assumption that models must be visual makes perfect sense: in the introductory biological and chemical contexts, most models are visual.

    These types of opportunities are what make the TBL/studio classroom so uniquely powerful: the room’s capacity to provide immediate feedback to the instructor which can then be leveraged into powerful teachable moments. However, for these moments to have their greatest effectiveness, the instructor must be capable of capitalizing on them. This capacity is, we think, extensively borne from experience. Experience gives the instructor not only the ability to make observations about student thinking in real time, but also the confidence that they can “go off script” and leverage such opportunities.

    1. One way in which cards are superior to iClickers or other digital technology is the ease with which such questions can be setup! ↩︎