Models and Visualizations

Our lab is specifically interested in how students learn and reason with visual information.  Visual information may be in the form of graphs, drawings, or models that represent scientific information.  We are currently funded through a project called "Simplifying Complexity" that explores the use of system models as tools for revealing insight into student thinking and promoting the development of systems thinking skills in introductory biology (NSF DRL 0910278; Long, PI).

What is a system model?

Our definition of a system model derives from work conducted by Ashok Goel and others (e.g., Goel and Chandrasekaran 1989; Hmelo et al. 2000), which states that all models are comprised of 3 constituent parts:

1. Structures are the objects, or concepts, represented within a model.  In a system model, structures (usually nouns) are represented in boxes.

2. Behaviors explain relationships between structures. These are usually processes or mechanisms that describe the nature of interactions between structures.  In a system model, behaviors are are represented as words or short phrases (usually verbs) on arrows that link pairs of model structures.

3. Functions are the purposes or roles of a model.  In other words, a model's function is what it serves to explain by virtue of all its structures and behaviors. 

How are we using system models?

We are using student-constructed system models to reveal insight into the ways students think and reason about biology.  Biology can be inherently difficult, particularly for learners accustomed to finding a single "right" answer to a problem. Practicing biologists, however, are often drawn to the discipline because of its complexity and the myriad interactions that comprise biological systems. By analyzing how students represent their understanding through models and other assessments, we hope to identify and characterize some of the challenges uniquely associated with learning biology.

Our research is organized around 6 questions:

1. What concepts do students view as relevant to a system?
2. How do students organize their thinking?
3. Are student-generated models accurate representations of their thinking?
4. How does student thinking change over time?
5. Do students use models to formulate predictions and explanations?
6. How do students evaluate scientific models?

Where have we presented this research?

Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting - 2012, 2011
Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research - 2012, 2011
National Association for Research in Science Teaching Annual Meeting - 2012, 2011
Michigan State University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum - 2012, 2011

An introduction to system models and using them in your classroom - PDF