- Leonardo da Vinci
When we engage students in the study of key concepts and ideas in our disciplines, our ultimate goal is for them to develop their own understandings, not just of the concept, but also how it relates to others. As students develop mental models, they can better understand complexity, relationships, and characteristics of a concept or idea. In this way, they build cognitive schema that helps them make sense of new information more efficiently and effectively.
Key features of the strategy
Building conceptual, virtual or physical models requires deep understanding on the part of the students. This activity would be much more effective as a culminating activity rather as an approach to helping students develop their understanding. This kind of work reflects the highest level of Bloom's taxonomy - creation. In some cases, you may want all students to develop a similar model of the concept at hand. In other cases, you might encourage them to develop their own unique understandings. Models can be presented in single dimensional form (on paper or digitally) or in simple or complex digital forms. Regardless of the format, the key for this type of learning activity to be effective is for it to provide students with an approach that helps them to develop rich, content-based understandings of the focal concept.
Examples and Variations
The most common way students may be challenged to build a model is by creating a concept or mental map. Nilson (2010) offers a number of variations of both concept and mental maps in higher education. While concept maps tend to be more linear and text-based, mental maps may include more visual and organic formats. Students in an ecology course can develop a rich model of environmental and human influences on a particular ecosystem. Students in economics can develop models of interdependency in the global economy. Students in history can demonstrate cause and effect relationships between different historical events.
Design thinking is a hot topic in education from elementary school to continuing professional education in a wide variety of industries. Interest in design thinking in higher education has exploded in recent years. At the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary, Michael Luchs teaches a course on Sustainability Inspired Innovation and Design. In the course, students build their understanding of the interactions between people, environment, culture and economy through an iteractive design process. In interdisciplinary teams, Luchs encourages students to use empathy and creative thinking to develop a model for how companies can rethink their products and services through a sustainability mindset. To learn more about this project and Luchs' approach to design thinking, see Episode 6 of the Luminaris Podcast.
Building models is no longer limited to conceptual or theoretical approaches. We can all remember creating physical representations of the solar system using various size spheres, wires, and labels. Emerging technology opens up new opportunities. With the diffusion of 3-D printing in education at all levels, students can create physical models to express their understanding or test their ideas. At Austin Community College's Architectural and Engineering CAD Department, students in an advanced mechanical class work over the course of the semester to design and then fabricate their own twin valve engine. Through an iteractive design process in the computer aided design (CAD) software and the 3-D printer, students can design, fabricate, test, and iterate. In this way, they develop a rich and authentic understanding of the design and manufacturing process in ways that far surpass what could be accomplished without the 3-D printer.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Building a model is a challenging way to encourage students to construct knowledge of a topic - an important dimension of 21st century learning design (21CLD). The development of a conceptual or physical model can also be considered a form of skilled communication. In either of these skills, students have to not only deeply understand the content, but also take on a reflective stance for deep learning.
Digital technologies provide students with powerful means to develop their models. Whether it is through concept mapping software (e.g., Mindmeister), computer aided design software (e.g., AutoCAD), or 3-D printing, digital tools can augment and extend the types of models that students can develop in their courses.
How might you challenge students to develop conceptual or physical models in your classes?
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