Building Models

Michigan State University and the Concord Consortium are collaborating to examine how to support secondary school students in constructing and revising models based on disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts to explain scientific phenomena and solve problems. We are iteratively designing, developing and testing a systems dynamics modeling tool to facilitate the building of dynamic models, and studying the quality of student-created models, the potential of these models to provide an explanatory framework across a range of core disciplinary ideas and the development of students’ modeling capabilities.

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SageModeler is a systems modeling tool to facilitate the building of dynamic models.
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Modeling is essential in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and, as such, is a central practice used across the science disciplines. Scientists develop, revise and use models to predict and explain phenomena by expressing relationships between variables that provide a predictive or causal account of the phenomena.

The Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) identify modeling as one of eight science and engineering practices and encourage science education to use these practices with a focus on a smaller number of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts. However, students seldom construct models to explain and predict phenomena in science classrooms.

Using a systems dynamics modeling tool, secondary school students will construct dynamic models and validate their models by comparing outputs from their own models and data from one or more other sources, including experimental data gathered from probes or data generated by simulations. The project engages learners in three-dimensional learning by using crosscutting concepts (systems and systems modeling, cause and effect, and energy and matter) with various scientific practices (particularly modeling, but also analyzing and interpreting data and engaging in argument with evidence), integrated with disciplinary core ideas.

To facilitate model validation, the systems dynamics tool and all external data sources will be embedded in the Common Online Data Analysis Platform (CODAP). CODAP is an intuitive graphing and data analysis platform that takes the outputs from the system dynamics models, as well as any other validating data source, and blends them into a single analytic environment, making it much easier for students to manipulate data from various sources and reducing cognitive load related to graphical and tabular data representations. CODAP’s logging system will be used to log student actions of data manipulation within CODAP, as well as log events generated by the embedded tools, including the systems dynamics tool, Next-Generation Molecular Workbench simulations, sensor data collectors and more.

Principal Investigators

Dan Damelin
Joe Krajcik

Project Inquiries

Project Partners

Michigan State University

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1417809. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

A key goal of this project is to increase students’ learning of science through modeling and to study student engagement with modeling as a scientific practice. To do this, we need to make modeling tools and supporting materials easily usable by both students and teachers. The systems dynamics tool should aid both teachers and students as they build models to explain phenomena using disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts and other related scientific practices.

We are in the early stages of designing, developing and testing approximately 10 instructional units that will support students in developing and using models. Each unit will last approximately two to three weeks and will engage students in constructing models to explain phenomena and in revising their models to better fit comparison data. The instructional materials will supplement teachers’ current curriculum and support students in building understanding of the performance expectations from NGSS. The goal is to work with teachers to select the performance expectations appropriate for the courses they are teaching.

The systems modeling tool and materials will be readily available, work with common and inexpensive hardware (such as the iPad), support the NGSS and fit easily into teachers’ curriculum. The research plan focuses on studying what students learn as they construct models, as well as how to scaffold the modeling process.

As a design-based research project, our research efforts focus on multiple cycles of designing, developing, testing and refining the systems modeling tool and the instructional materials to help students meet important learning goals related to constructing dynamic models around core ideas. The learning research studies the effect of working with external models on student construction of internal mental models. To accomplish this goal we propose four overarching research questions.

Research Questions

  1. In what ways does use of a semi-quantitative systems dynamics tool to construct external models help students in their initial attempts to build mental models?
  2. When students are able to compare directly predictions of their external model with data they gather in an experiment, are they able to refine their external model to account for discrepancies, and does this process increase the richness and explanatory, problem-solving utility of their mental model?
  3. How best can teachers and curriculum materials support and scaffold student learning with respect to the interplay between external and internal models?
  4. Given sustained engagement with external model construction and validation, what is the evolution of the quality of students’ internal models? In particular, do models progress from qualitative to more quantitative models and does understanding of disciplinary core ideas become more sophisticated?

Field Sites

Throughout the initial development of the modeling tool and during its revision, we will work closely with teachers to inform our products. Teachers from Michigan and Massachusetts will participate in the development, testing and implementation components of the project.


SageModeler is a systems modeling tool being developed by the Building Models project to facilitate the building of dynamic models. SageModeler has diagramming and semi-quantitative modeling capabilities, and is designed for middle and high school students. Built in HTML, the software runs in any modern Web browser.

At its most basic level, SageModeler permits students to draw system diagrams and specify semi-quantitative relationships. The SageModeler environment leverages the Concord Consortium’s Common Online Data Analysis Platform (CODAP) to support learners in exploring data generated by its systems modeling engine. Eventually, SageModeler will allow students to go from simple models that don’t require any knowledge of math to full-fledged system dynamics models, defined by equations and more complex relationships.

Note: This software is under development! Please feel free to send feedback or report bugs. Thanks!

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SageModeler Quick Intro

Watch the short instructional video to learn how to build your own model or follow the instructions included within SageModeler.

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