Tiny details, big impact: The power of scientific models

Tiny details, big impact: The power of scientific models

Stacey Martin - Lead author of 7-10 Science

Dive into Stacey's latest blog, where she uses our Science resources for Years 7-10 to highlight the benefit of visual models in Science education. From turning abstract concepts into tangible realities, her examples show how visuals can transform learning. Discover how the right perspective and scale can not only enrich understanding but also make Science engaging by providing context! Read on to zoom in on Science,  where details "matter" and context "counts". 

In the realm of Science education, navigating from subatomic particles to macroscopic objects can be like charting a course to unfamiliar shores. For seasoned scientists, these waters are a known-passage but for our students, they're filled with new rules, patterns, and a sea of jargon. Our role isn't just to distribute knowledge but to make the invisible visible, transforming abstract concepts into a clear, concrete understanding. By using models, we simplify complex ideas and bring the unseen world into view. These models not only aid navigation – they help our students sail smoothly, avoiding the whirlpools of misconception, and grasp the true nature of the elements around us.

Small scale, big picture 

For example, Understanding the concept of "particles" as an umbrella term that includes everything from atoms to complex molecules is crucial. Visual aids that help students zoom in and out help clarify this concept and by showing how particles make up everyday materials, we help make it more tangible and relatable. Using scale and perspective is essential in science; whether studying the subtle spin of subatomic particles or the sprawling spirals of entire galaxies, clearly indicating the scale we're working with helps students maintain perspective and grasp the scope of what they’re studying. 

Figure 1. Highlights how objects of varying sizes, from microscopic to macroscopic, can all be classified as particles along a spectrum.

In Biology, the challenge is making the microscopic world of cells and atoms relatable. By the end of a unit, students might be able to recall all the organelle functions, but do they know where they can find a cell? Or what a cell is made of? We can use models and scaled visuals to demonstrate how atomic structures underpin biological processes. This not only builds a foundational understanding but also helps students navigate between different representations and scales. By showing how everything in science is interconnected, using clear and straightforward visuals, students can link the microscopic details with the broader, observable world around them. With discussion, this can encourage them to connect concepts across different scales, from individual atoms to entire organisms.

Figure 2. Visually connects the smallest form of matter, to show how we eventually make up the parts of an organism, with increasing complexity. 

Keeping it real

By pairing models with real-world examples, we offer students a comprehensive view that bridges theoretical concepts with concrete examples. Seeing these concepts in action not only helps capture students' attention by making it relatable, but also enhances their understanding by engaging multiple senses.

Figure 3. Explaining displacement using a swimming pool makes the abstract notion of ‘distance vs. displacement’ as clear as the water they swim in. 

Seeing both sides

Models that show both the big and small stuff, or abstract and concrete ideas side by side, are really helpful for students. Cl early explaining these models and connecting the visuals to their scientific principles helps everyone, no matter their prior knowledge, grasp key concepts, making science simple and engaging. This approach helps students link new concepts to previous knowledge, reinforcing their understanding and reducing misconceptions. Using colour can also be a game-changer, illustrating temperature changes, distinguishing pure substances, and highlighting chemical reactions. 

Figure 4. By comparing gas particles with the particles of solid gold, students can clearly see differences in volume and density. This side-by-side comparison helps link theory with real-world outcomes. 

Figure 5. Using colour and the particle model, we can clearly illustrate how thermal energy is transferred by conduction. This model heats up our understanding of how heat energy is transferred via the collision of particles. 

Model talk

All models are useful, but not all models are correct. As students move into Years 9 and 10, it becomes more important to highlight what models simplify and what they leave out. This helps cultivate a critical mindset. Discussing their limitations encourages students to think beyond the model. Spending time analysing images helps give students confidence in their distinctions between the simplified representations and the more complex realities.

Figure 6. This model reinforces the particle theory but has limitations, including omitting electromagnetic forces, particle variability, phase changes in intermediary states, and the effects of pressure on particle behaviour.

Striking the right balance 

Balancing models with explanatory text is an effective approach to teaching complex concepts. Models provide a visual representation that can make abstract ideas more concrete, while accompanying text offers detailed explanations that clarify and expand on these visual tools. 

Figure 7. Models can illustrate the stoichiometric relationships in a reaction, making it easier for students to grasp why each element must be balanced on both sides of the equation.

To further help students understand and grow in confidence with models, you could play "Scientific Pictionary" with your students. Using key science terms, students can draw their interpretations of concepts, promoting active participation and helping them visualise and create their own models. This playful approach not only makes learning fun but also deepens their grasp of scientific vocabulary, and concepts.


Australian professional standards for teachers. Available at: https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/national-policy-framework/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers.pdf 

Gail D. Chittleborough 1 et al. (2018) Why models are advantageous to learning science, Educación Química. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0187893X1830003X#:~:text=The%20role%20of%20models,-For%20students%20to&text=Models%20are%20useful%20tools%20in,Chittleborough%20and%20Mamiala%2C%202003). 

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