The simple truth about science models in the curriculum

Following on from Dr Leila Walker’s lightening talk at #SER17, Liam Cullingford our chemistry content intern discusses how models in the curriculum clash with reality and how science educators have a responsibility to their students to be honest with them

 

 

ModelsModels are a necessary part of science education, they help us simplify problems and give meaning to abstract, complex phenomena. Models in this sense however don’t necessarily mean three dimensional plastic balls and sticks but any concept or metaphor that aids understanding of a subject. At school, different models are used by different teachers but of course the nationalisation of the curriculum, means that some of these are standardised.

It is important that these models are accurate. This may seem like an obvious statement but at times educators can underestimate their students and stretch a model to its simplest limit. One example is in the teaching of atomic structure. A typical strategy for teaching this central scientific concept is to follow the genesis of the model for the atom that scientists have developed over the last 200 years or so. Beginning with Dalton’s hard sphere model and culminating with the more modern, correct picture devised by Schrodinger at the turn of the 20th century. Now obviously small children are not able to jump straight to the quantum physics and advanced mathematics required to explain the models closest to reality, however beginning their education of the atom equivalent to a point before even electricity was discovered is perhaps a little too far back. Teaching science should be a way to allow children to access the truth of the world around them but certain models can confuse or even be simply untrue. Clearly this is the case with scientific models proven to be incorrect more than a decade ago and thus the challenge is to find new, simple models to bring science teaching more up to date.

Linked below is an interesting talk given by Ian Stuart, a retired science teacher from Brisbane, Australia. In the video he shows clips of the work he has been doing alongside child psychologists in teaching atomic theory to primary school students (equivalent to Bohr’s model in the timeline above). Normally this isn’t taught until GCSE at the earliest but the clips show children enjoying it and engaging with the science in ways perhaps not thought possible.

 

The key here to the success of this enterprise is the model that essentially makes atomic structure into a counting game and although it may seem simplified, the point is that they are able to grasp the concept and are introduced to it at a young age. This shows the power that a simple and effective model has, it can get to the truth of a concept through simplification and make it easy to understand.

Molecules and Me ©

The trickiest examples of curriculum models becoming over simplified exist in organic chemistry and the chemistry of carbon-based compounds, for example carboxylic acids such as stearic acid. At KS3 you might not even know about bonds, atoms are often represented as spheres that sometimes stick together. Then at KS4 by nature of studying on two dimensional paper the bonds around the carbon atom are always approximated to be in the same plane and at right angles to one another. At A-level you finally learn that molecules have three dimensional shape and that carbon has a tetrahedral form. This approach has many benefits, the 2D models are useful for counting bonds broken for energy changes and introducing bonding. It does however clash with the representations used in Nano Simbox which are based on real simulations, and even in my short time here have heard students say they were surprised that this was what molecules truly look like! It is vital that science educators find simple models that also fully encapsulate the truth of the science. In the current (changing) climate, it is vital that we not only have a well-educated scientific populace but also one that understands how models work and trusts in the scientific method.

This need for a simple, accurate and intuitive model is what drives Nano Simbox and it is the hope that technology can lead the way. The platform that we have here at Nano Simbox allows children to be creative and also enjoy concepts deemed to be the correct level in the Key Stage curriculum but to see them accurately represented by sophisticated university level software. The challenge now going forward, is to combine the work done by innovative teachers such as Ian Stuart, and our Science Educator Network, and the work done by Nano Simbox to the more traditional parts of the curriculum to avoid confusion. Doing this, it is my hope that we can create a new generation of scientists that can model and understand our most pressing challenges.

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