NGSS Modeling Is Not An Art Project

NGSS modeling is one of my favorite Science and Engineering Practices. Modeling helps our students sift through their existing ideas, communicate prior knowledge, keep track of their growing conceptual understanding, and ultimately demonstrate mastery of unit concepts. It’s a tool that we can use in the classroom any time when we have any amount of time and with few resources. All that said, it’s also a tool that is often misunderstood — mostly because our own existing understandings of modeling cloud our understanding of NGSS modeling.

What Is NGSS Modeling?

Before we dive into what NGSS modeling is, I want to share my initial understandings of modeling — what I believed and understood in my pre-NGSS days. I’m thinking you’ll probably relate.

When I thought of models in the past, my mind went to things like

  • water cycle diagrams
  • rock cycle diagrams
  • the Oreo lunar cycle
  • graham cracker plate tectonics
  • “edible cell” projects
  • “biome in a box” activities

And I’ll confess – I used most of those tasks in my classroom in my early days! They had the potential for fun, for (shallow) engagement. They were opportunities to break up the monotony of textbooks and PowerPoints and traditional exams. The thing is, they aren’t models. They don’t represent NGSS modeling.

At best, they are snacks and crafts.

Snacks And Crafts

If you asked me back in 2018 when I began this iExploreScience venture what I thought about these types of “snacks and crafts” in the classroom, I probably would have tried to veil some of my disdain and yet reinforce the idea that – there is no place for snacks and crafts in the science classroom.

Over the last four years, my views have shifted — a bit.

Undeniably, snacks and crafts can be engaging. They can be opportunities to have some fun in the classroom, to create personal connections and community memories, to give kids a chance to laugh and play a little. As our students squelch out frosting from between graham cracker cookies, they laugh. As they build their “biome in a box” and go all out with the glitter and paint, they’re having fun. When they spend the weekend baking an edible cell cake to show off on Monday, they’re proud of their work.

Four years later, I don’t hold the same animosity for “snacks and crafts” in the science classroom (in any classroom). Anytime we can bring joy to our students and their learning, we win. Anytime they can create a fond memory, a personal connection to an area of study, something good has happened.

But we do need to recognize “snacks and crafts” for what they are.

They are fun activities, fun snacks, fun crafts, fun games… but they aren’t science. They typically don’t – as traditionally written – develop understanding, demonstrate mastery, ask students to use critical thinking, or truly represent the Science and Engineering Practices.

They aren’t science in that sense.

And if we can recognize them for what they are, we can either

  • use them as-is as a way to bring fun and play into the science classroom, or
  • work to elevate the task

So all that said, snacks and crafts are not NGSS modeling, but they still might have a place in your classroom.

So what is NGSS modeling?

NGSS Modeling Versus Traditional Models

Modeling is the practice of representing phenomena (processes or events) to explain what is occurring or predict what will happen.  Modeling shows what can’t be seen.  Models also may show time passing.

So why aren’t the edible cell, the Oreo lunar cycle, or the biome in a box project considered NGSS models? First, none of these projects explain a phenomenon.

The edible cell is showing you what an “average” cell looks like. It may identify what each part does.  But it doesn’t help you understand how those parts work together to perform a specific task. It also fails to represent the great diversity of our cells — muscle cells, skin cells, nerve cells, white blood cells. So often our students only see the “generic animal cell” and have no idea that cells don’t all look the same! Our “snack and craft” model inadvertently reinforces this misunderstanding.

Along similar lines, the Oreo lunar cycle shows our students what the moon looks like over time, but it’s not helping them to understand why it changes — or even the rate of that change. They certainly aren’t developing an understanding of the Earth-Sun-Moon system, which is at the core of the NGSS Disciplinary Core Idea for this topic. The activity is a yummy snack, but it falls short of real depth, real learning, real science.

On the flip side, what if students collected data themselves, tracking how our view of the moon changed over time? Then, used hands-on resources to figure out how the Earth, Sun, and Moon align to create those views — developing their own model of the Earth-Sun-Moon system to explain the phenomenon of our moon’s phases.

Grab a ready-to-go resource for this lesson right here!

And finally, the biome in a box – while a fun art project – is a static snapshot of a dynamic system. In fact, typically you’re losing the most important part the way all of the components work together to maintain equilibrium — when the task is carried out as it’s often written.

Yes, the projects I described above can be fun and engaging (though not quite intellectually engaging). The problem is, they aren’t science. They aren’t engaging your students in work toward understanding the workings of the natural world. They aren’t developing your students’ science skills. Even when used as project-based assessments, they are built on rote memorization and replicating facts and figures. They aren’t showing you what your students conceptually understand. They aren’t demonstrating learning.

NGSS Modeling In The 21st Century Science Classroom

So what do we want to see when we engage our students in NGSS modeling? Consider the following.

1. NGSS models are based on phenomenon. 

NGSS models show something SPECIFIC.  Consider the water cycle diagram. This is not a model. It is a diagram. It shows generally how water moves. When we ask students to develop a “model” of the water cycle, they simply plug into Google the request and spit out the generics. Unfortunately, this doesn’t show anything about their understanding of how water is actually moving.

What if we shifted this task to focus on a phenomenon? Instead of creating a generic model of the water cycle, students create a model to represent water evaporating from a puddle on the sidewalk. With this task, our students are asked to apply the generics to a specific situation.

Focus NGSS modeling tasks on specific phenomena.

2. Consider including a visual component. 

Asking students to draw or construct a visual representation of whatever phenomena you are studying can reveal more about their understanding than they may be able to express in words. While NGSS modeling doesn’t require a visual component, incorporating multiple ways of communicating their ideas about a phenomenon can be really helpful for students who may not always have the scientific vocabulary – or simply verbal/written acumen – to fully demonstrate their understanding.

And along those lines, NGSS modeling can be a tool to discovery concepts themselves, such as when students use three-dimensional representations to develop their understandings.

3. NGSS models focus on the relevant components. 

Traditional models were generic. They showed you all the parts — all the parts of the water cycle, all the parts of the cell, all the parts of the rock cycle, and so on.

But if you’re building a model to explain a phenomenon, the irrelevant parts don’t need to be there. Consider the task, building a model to explain the shrinking of onion cells in saltwater. Your students don’t need to include every part of the cell. They should only be representing the relevant components.

And yes, they are providing LESS. But this proves they are thinking about what is actually important to this specific instance, and they are showing that they understand how those specific components work — versus copying the cell model from your textbook.

My Cell Theory and Cell Structure assessment incorporates this phenomenon. Grab the ready-to-go three-dimensional resource right here.

4. NGSS modeling is a dynamic process. 

When we engage our students in NGSS modeling, it’s typically a dynamic process. Our students record their initial thinking and understanding. And as their learning grows, they return to the model to revise and expand their explanations.

Student models should reflect an evolving understanding.

5. Lastly, NGSS models include both observable and unobservable features. 

This one is something I always include on the rubric for any modeling task, and I highly recommend you spend time talking with your students about these ideas. The point of modeling is often to to explain what we see (or make predictions about what we have not yet seen) — and this is often accomplished by highlighting what we cannot see.

Great NGSS models show what’s happening beyond the observable. They show the movement of energy and matter, changes over time, interactions occurring, things happening on scales too large or too small to easily observe. This turns a simple art project — a static “biome in a box” or a “model of the solar system” into a true NGSS modeling task.

NGSS Modeling Is More Than An Art Project

Models are more than art projects. (Although of course, I love the idea of also incorporating art – and every discipline! – into your science class! Remember, the important thing is just to recognize our tasks for what they are and make decisions from that aware perspective.)

You can learn more about what students should be doing with NGSS modeling across the K-12 grade bands by checking out the NSTA Science and Engineering Practices Matrix. Click here to access that resource!

Where Can You Learn More About Three-Dimensional Teaching?

Check out the free mini-course – Bring Wonder Back – to get a handle on the basics of sparking learning from phenomena, developing student-driven storylines, and teaching day-to-day in three dimensions. Discover what the NGSS and three-dimensional teaching and learning REALLY look like in the classroom in bite-size videos you can access at your own pace.

Learn More About NGSS Modeling

Modeling Atoms and Molecules: Making Abstract Concepts Concrete

Developing AND Using Models: Modeling Organs and Organ Systems (MS-LS1-3)

Maps Can Be Models, Too: Exploring Plate Tectonics

Formative Assessments For NGSS Science Classrooms