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Q&A: An Expert in Scientific Modeling Shares Why It Works—and How to Use It

Lisa Kenyon, EdD, uses modeling techniques developed from her work in K–12 schools to enhance college students’ understanding of science.


Lisa Kenyon, EdD

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio

EdD and postdoctoral studies in Curriculum and Instruction–Science Education, MS in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, BS in Biology

Dr. Lisa Kenyon is an acclaimed professor of biology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. So why is she using techniques typically found in K–12 classrooms? Because she has found that they work.

Scientific modeling is one such teaching strategy. Simply put, Kenyon explains scientific modeling as a practice that involves the use of scientific models—including their creation, manipulation, and analysis—along with the thought processes that drive the modifications and predictions that follow. “It’s supposed to model how scientists go about making explanations about phenomena or explaining the world,” she adds. “Modeling started in K–12 classrooms, but after researching it, I started doing it in my college classroom, too.” (See the sidebar for links to two of her studies.)

While critical scientific thinking is obviously vital for science majors, it is just as important for nonmajors, she asserts, because it centers on evidence and how scientists use it to make predictions. “When students go into the real world, we want them to understand what we mean by evidence—that it’s not just opinion,” she says. “When they hear something or read it on the Internet, we want them to be able to make sense of it.”

Below, Kenyon shares insights on the finer points of scientific modeling and how it can help transform students into scientific thinkers.

See resource shared by Lisa Kenyon, EdD

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“We’re moving to more student thinking, where students are explaining how and why something happened. Modeling helps students think through things, ask questions, explain to one another. Transforming students’ thinking in a science class can be more authentic to how science works.”

— Lisa Kenyon, EdD

Course: BIO 1050 Biology of Food

Course description: Biological principles applied to the nature of food, its production, and use in the human body. Topics include molecular biology, photosynthesis, respiration, macro- and micronutrients, anatomy and function of digestion, nutrition, food labeling, food safety, and issues of feeding a rapidly growing human population.

An interview with Lisa Kenyon, EdD, on scientific modeling

Kenyon, an award-winning biology professor and advocate of scientific literacy, has studied how modeling can be used to engage students of all ages. In a recent conversation with Course Hero, she shared the following insights into how she uses the technique in her classes and why it works so well.

Course Hero: Can you explain a bit more about scientific modeling?

Lisa Kenyon, EdD: Scientific modeling is a form of active learning that involves higher-level thinking. It’s more explanatory; it’s more figuring it out. Through scientific modeling, students construct diagrammatic models to explain how and why scientific phenomena occur. Using model-based reasoning, students attend to the interactive, invisible components in their models to explain mechanistic processes. For example, if I teach about the digestive system, I actually have students draw it out on a whiteboard and explain it. If I’m talking about photosynthesis, they draw it out and explain it. It is thinking and making it visual.

How was scientific modeling introduced in K–12 classrooms?

Right now, modeling is huge in K–12 science classrooms across the country, because, in at least 19 states, they must adhere to Next Generation Science Standards, which encourage scientific practices. One of the practices is engaging students in scientific thinking in more authentic ways. Students do this “model thinking” in groups and have to figure out the model and explain it to someone else, so it requires some sort of sense-making, rather than just parroting back the information.

Kenyon’s Research on Scientific Modeling

Kenyon has participated in numerous studies on the use of scientific modeling in the classroom:

Berland, L.K. et al. “Epistemologies in Practice: Making Scientific Practices Meaningful for Students.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2016: vol. 53, no. 7, pp. 1082–1112.

Kenyon, L., C. Schwarz, and B. Hug. “The Benefits of Scientific Modeling.” Science and Children, 2008: vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 40–44.

Kenyon L.O., E.M. Walter, and W.S. Romine. “Transforming a College Biology Course to Engage Students: Exploring Shifts in Evolution Knowledge and Mechanistic Reasoning.” In U. Harms and M. Reiss (eds.), Evolution Education Re-considered. Springer, 2019.

Kenyon, L., J. Zemmer, and B. Penry (2019). “Explanatory Thinking Using Mobile Devices in a Non-science Majors Biology Course.” Journal of College Science Teaching, 2019: vol. 49, no. 1, 12–18.

Manger, J. and L. Kenyon. “Moving from Product-Driven Models to Meaningful Practices.” Science Scope, 2019: vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 44–50.

Reed, M., T. Jenkins, and L. Kenyon. (2019). “Why Wetlands Matter: Using Modeling and Data Analysis to Understand Wetland Functions.” The Science Teacher, 2019: vol. 87, no. 4, pp. 54–62.

Reiser, B.J., L.K. Berland, and L. Kenyon. “Engaging Students in the Scientific Practices of Explanation and Argumentation.” Science Teacher, 2012: vol. 74, pp. 34–39; Science Scope, vol. 35, pp. 6–11; Science and Children, vol. 49, pp. 8–13.

Schwarz, C.V. et al. “Developing a Learning Progression for Scientific Modeling: Making Scientific Modeling Accessible and Meaningful for Learners.” Journal of Research in Science Education, 2009: vol. 46, no. 6, pp. 632–54.

Schwarz, C.V. et al. “MoDeLS: Challenges in Defining a Learning Progression for Scientific Modeling.” In A.C. Alonzo anbd A.W. Gotwals (eds.), Learning Progressions in Science: Current Challenges and Future Directions (pp. 101–137). Sense Publishers, 2012.

Todd, A. and L. Kenyon. “How Do Siamese Cats Get Their Color? Science Teacher, 2016: vol. 83, no. 1, pp. 29­–33.

How do you let college students know you use this different approach?

Most college classrooms are lecture-type, and auditorium classrooms. I send out emails before the course starts to let students know what’s involved, because there’s going to be work. There will be days when I lecture and there will be days when we do active learning.

The first day of class is eye-opening for students. I teach in a SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies) classroom that has whiteboards and computers at every student table. There are 30 tables with six students at each table. Students’ attitudes are, “Wow this is not my regular classroom. We’re going to be talking in groups!” They’re very excited about it.

What do college students think of modeling?

They find they really do like it. The first time students do modeling, they aren’t sure about it; they are nervous, and they want to know how to get the “right answer” on the models. I encourage them to know, “There’s no right answer right now. You’re on the right track. You’re going to figure this out. You’ll get there, but this is definitely a learning process.”

I give them participation points for making the models. I don’t evaluate whether they got them right or wrong—that takes the pressure off at the moment. If they’re wrong, I want them to see that on their own and talk through it and discuss it.

By the middle of the semester, they really rely on each other. They talk through the material.

How can other educators introduce modeling in their classrooms?

Begin by thinking about the course content. Instead of thinking, for example, “I have to teach about digestion,” they should think about what their main objectives are and turn those objectives into how and why type questions. For example, for the digestions process, change it to an investigative question: How and why does my food travel to my cells? Or for understanding respiration, How and why is oxygen necessary for my cells? Use these questions to help guide student thinking about the explanatory nature of the process, instead of stating explicitly that they are learning body systems.

Then have students create an initial model for which they tap into their prior knowledge without the concern of grades. Let them know they’re in a safe space, and they do not have to get the “right” answer for that model.

Also, create activities that pull in scientific evidence and/or provide information, so students can go back and evaluate or revise their models and explain the how and why.

What results have you seen when students start modeling?

We start to see students have scientific arguments. They point out that one model is more convincing than another because it explains more or has more evidence. The teacher didn’t tell them that. The teacher didn’t put up a list and say, “This is what we want to look for,” because then it becomes rote, and students do it because they do it for the teacher. They don’t do it for their own sense-making.

You start to see this evolution of students’ thinking in which they’re not just doing it because it’s a school task, but they’re doing it because they are excited that they’re doing science.

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