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Tensions

between conceptual and metaconceptual


learning with models

Michele J Mann, Cesar Delgado, Walter M Stroup, & Anthony J Petrosino


MJMann@UTexas.edu

ABSTRACT
Models and modeling are prominent in the new US science education standards, being present as both a
crosscutting concept and a science and engineering practice. Yet, there is a gap between the way scientists
use models and how models are used in the science classrooms. Models have been shown to be very
useful in achieving student gains in conceptual understanding of phenomena yet models may inadvertently
foster inaccurate metaconceptual or epistemological understandings about the phenomenon. An evaluation
of two ecosystem models was done to illustrate how these linked models could be used in the classroom to
foster both conceptual and metaconceptual learning. Teachers need to be aware when using models of the
conceptual outcomes as well as the metaconceptual outcomes; these are often in tension and must be
navigated carefully. Students need to be exposed to multiple models during a unit that emphasize different
aspects of the phenomena, supporting different conceptual understandings but also illustrating the nature of
science and the limitations and strengths of modeling. As the science education community moves towards
implementing the vision of the Next Generation Science Standards, metaconceptually aware teaching
practices around modeling must come into place.



Tensions between conceptual and metaconceptual learning with models
Models and modeling are prominent in the new US science education standards, being present as
both a crosscutting concept and a science and engineering practice (NRC, 2012, 2013). Yet, there is a gap
between the way scientists use models and how models are used in the science classrooms. Models are
typically used in the classroom to teach about a process in a static sense (Grosslight, Unger, Jay, & Smith,
1991). Often the student is learning about what happened or happens but not looking at what could
happen or emergent properties. Scientists however often use models more dynamically, to determine what
can possibly happen. For instance, every year, meteorologists combine models from many different
sources to predict the number of hurricanes that will develop in the Northern hemisphere (Chen, Zhao,
Donelan, Price, & Walsh, 2007). Students need exposure and experience using models as scientists, i.e.,
using models for more than learning about a phenomenon. In addition, models by their very nature are not
complete representations of the target phenomenon, and the strengths and limitations of the models need
to be noted and understood.

According to the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012), children in grades K-2
should be drawing and diagramming to help them develop an understanding of a model; as children
develop, their models should also progress by no longer just representing what is physically seen in a
model but also other features of a system. By high school students should be able to integrate data into a
model and be able to discuss the models precision and accuracy (National Research Council, 2012).
Through the use of models, students simultaneously develop their own mental models (Sutton, 1992).
Modeling as a skill needs to be systematically developed by students by having experiences with many
different forms of models (Petrosino, 2003).
Models are essentially metaphors (Petrosino, 2003; Sutton, 1992) where a better-known or more
concrete phenomenon represents features of the target phenomenon, e.g., sticks and balls represent
compounds or beads on pipe cleaners represents nitrogenous bases. There is a natural development in
instructional modeling from literal resemblances to relational structure and function (Gentner, 1983;
Gentner & Toupin, 1986). The use of models as a tool requires both scientific and mathematical reasoning
(Cullin & Crawford, 2002) that is developed through practice.
Models have been shown to be very useful in achieving student gains in conceptual understanding
of phenomena (Coll, France, & Taylor, 2005). Yet models may inadvertently foster inaccurate
metaconceptual or epistemological understandings about the phenomenon. Recent literature has explored
the tensions between conceptual and metaconceptual learning with models (Delgado, in press), and
proposed a series of instructional and curricular measures to keep students from coming away with nature
of science (NOS) or epistemological misunderstandings at the metaconceptual level. Comparing models
may be a useful way of fostering both conceptual and metaconceptual understanding (Delgado, in press;
Hodson, 2008; Snir, Smith, & Grosslight, 1993). In this theoretical paper, we present two models of an
ecosystem with different affordances and constraints: a three dimensional, real-time living model of an
ecosystem that is itself a simplified ecosystem, and the other a stock and flow computer model of the gas
chemical reactions in an ecosystem. By simultaneously considering two models of the same target
phenomenon, we posit that students may develop a richer understanding of both ecosystems and modeling.
This theoretical paper proposes the use of linked models and specific classroom activities that should lead
to enhanced conceptual and metaconceptual learning by students.

Theoretical Framework



Tensions between conceptual and metaconceptual learning with models
Models can foster learning about a phenomenon at the conceptual and metaconceptual levels
(Delgado, in press). A conceptual level of understanding is knowledge of the facts, concepts, and theories
around a phenomenon while metaconceptual is concerned with how the products of science were
developed and the characteristics of those products (Delgado, in press). Models are simplified
representations of the real world, which means that interpretations, conventions, and limitations of the
model need to be considered when using a model. Models can effectively support conceptual learning but
at the same time create misinterpretations of metaconceptual understandings. Delgado (in press) explains
that there are four characteristics of models and simulations that can be metaconceptually problematic:
ahistoricity, teleology, epistemological overreach, and ontological poverty. This framework will be used to
evaluate two ecosystem models, and to illustrate how these linked models could be used in the classroom
to foster both conceptual and metaconceptual learning.
The Models
Ecosystem in a Bottle. An ecosystem is a community of biotic and abiotic components interacting
as a system, e.g., a coral reef ecosystem, which includes the living organisms and nonliving components
like sand and water. The largest ecosystem is the Earth as a whole. Biosphere II, a 3.14-acres, domed
area that includes an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, tropical rainforest savannah grassland
and fog desert and a team of eight humans, was an attempt in the nineties to model the Earths biosphere.
However, much simpler models can be built even in the elementary classroom, featuring plant and animal
life. The first model is an ecosystem in two connected bottles. The bottom bottle is an aquatic system with
a few freshwater shrimp, daphnia (a small freshwater crustacean), and snails, along with a sprig of elodea
(an aquatic plant). The top part of the system was soil where bean seeds had been planted. Connecting
the terrestrial system with the aquatic was a piece of cotton string, allowing the exchange of water and
gases across bottles. The system was sealed and placed in a sunny window. This ecosystem in a bottle is
a simplified scale model of an aquatic and terrestrial system. This system is dynamic and functioning much
like the real system although with limited organisms, space, and interactions outside the enclosed vessel.
This model works well to see growth of plants and reproduction of daphnia, shrimp and snails over a long
period of time. Over time, the composition of gases changes as the bean plants grow, and with the daily
cycle of sunlight.
Computer Simulation. The second model is a participatory aggregate simulation model created on
InSight Maker (Foreman-Roe & Bellinger, 2013) to show the daily interactions within an ecosystem. It was
designed using data of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels measured in the ecosystem in a bottle.
Participatory simulation modeling has been shown to be an effective tool for students to gain understanding
of complex systems (W. M. Stroup, Ares, Lesh, & Hurford, 2007; Wilensky & Stroup, 2002, 2013). Stroup
and Wilensky (2014) recently found that using aggregate models along with agent-based models effectively
increased learning and reasoning. The variables of interest are modeled using a stocks and flows
approach. In a stocks and flows model, there are initial levels of the variables that are increased or
decreased by different processes. An example is the stock of water in a bathtub, with flows inwards from
the faucet and outward from the drain and evaporation. In this model, the stocks are specifically the carbon
dioxide, plant food (products of photosynthesis or carbohydrates), and size of the organisms while the flows
are photosynthesis, cellular respiration, and rate of growth. This graphically diagramed the dance between



Tensions between conceptual and metaconceptual learning with models
cycle. The model transforms the gross physical
data into mathematical relationships. Notably,
while the data from the ecosystem in a bottle
showed stochastic variations, the computer
simulation used curve-fitting (Figure 1) to
produce exact mathematical relationships across
carbon dioxide, plant food, and size of the
organisms. Plant food was inferred from
measured oxygen levels.
Figure 1 Carbon dioxide and plant food levels
the carbon dioxide and plant food during a daily
Conceptual and Metaconceptual Learning: An Analysis
Ecosystem in a Bottle
The strengths of this model for conceptual learning are that students can observe all or part of the
life cycles of the bean plants, elodea, daphnia, snails and fresh water shrimp. The prescriptive instructions
for building the model are such that a successful system will most likely occur. The students can also
observe the water cycle when condensation forms inside the bottles. The plants growing and the animals
thriving is evidence that the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles are functioning in the ecosystem. To
further understand the cycles, measurements of atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide can be taken and
soil and water can be tested. However, a weakness of this model for conceptual learning is that students
cannot directly observe the gas cycles. The products of photosynthesis and cellular respiration can be
inferred but not directly observed in the process. Students are also not able to measure the amount of
plant food or carbohydrates the plants are producing. The prescriptive model set-up does not lead to a
better understanding of how ecosystems interact to reach sustainability. Lastly this model has fewer trophic
levels than are commonly observed in nature. Metaconceptual strengths of this ecosystem are that in the
lesson plans accompanying instructions it is explicitly stated that this is simpler ecosystem than found in
nature, building an understanding of the nature of the modeling process. However, there are also
weaknesses at the metaconceptual level. Ontological poverty is an issue because the models robustness
(while helpful for conceptual learning) conceals the possibility of unstable equilibria or sudden outside
shocks to the system that can occur in real ecosystems. This model does not have all the factors present in
a natural ecosystem, and there are fewer trophic levels with fewer organisms. Epistemological overreach is
a problem as well, as the students might get the impression that balanced sustainable ecosystems are
easily built, well known, and are more the rule than the exception. In fact, there are components of the
ecosystem (e.g., microbes in the soil) that are essential but not fully studied by science and not explicitly
mentioned in the simulation.
Computer Simulation
Due to space constraints only the part of the simulation dealing with amount of carbon dioxide and plant
food is discussed in this paper (the rest will be analyzed in the full paper distributed at the conference).
The strength of this model for conceptual learning is that it effectively shows the interaction between carbon
dioxide and plant food, demonstrating the reactants and products of photosynthesis and cellular respiration.
The simulation allows for multiple, quick cycles of experimentation. It makes explicit important cycles that
are not obvious at the macrolevel. A weakness for conceptual learning is that the nature of the relationship
between carbon dioxide levels and plant growth is not clear. Students might assume that as more carbon



Tensions between conceptual and metaconceptual learning with models
dioxide is produced, that causes more plant food to be produced. While the carbohydrates cannot be
produced without carbon dioxide, it is not causing the carbohydrates to be produced. At the
metaconceptual level, this part of the simulation produced a specific graph that, while helpful in
understanding the concept of the relationship between photosynthesis and carbon dioxide, may be
problematic. The model is ontologically impoverished because it does not account for all of the fluctuation
in the concentration of the carbon dioxide and oxygen. There could be gases sequestered in the soil or
dissolved in the water that are not accounted for in the simulation. Epistemological overreach is also an
issue because the graphs (e.g., Fig. 1) feature smooth curves with perfect inverse relationships rather than
the scattered data points and imperfect relationships of real data. The continuous lines imply continuous
measurement of data (which is actually at discrete points in time). Plant food levels are inferred from O2
levels rather than measured directly, again implying to the user a greater degree of certainty than actually
exists.
Navigating the Tensions Between Conceptual and Metaconceptual Learning
Van Driel and Verloop (2002) found that teachers showed an awareness of the value of using models to
teach science concepts but not the value of using models to learn about science. There needs to be more
emphasis in professional development on how to use models in science to not only teach the conceptual
understanding but also the metaconceptual understandings. Teachers need to be aware when using
models of the conceptual outcomes as well as the metaconceptual outcomes; these are often in tension
and must be navigated carefully (Delgado, in press).
In the case of our two linked models, the simpler the model the more conceptual learning is
supported. For instance, a perfect inverse relationship between carbon dioxide and plant food levels is
easier to detect and understand than one that is more realistic, but the idealization of the curves are an
example of epistemological overreach. Engaging students in plotting real, messy data and deriving that the
relationship is approximately inverse can help navigate the tension between conceptual and
metaconceptual learning. After doing this, the perfect curves of the simulation are more likely to be
understood as an idealized model. The stability of the ecosystem in a bottle is very useful for classroom
implementation and conceptual understanding, but is ontologically impoverished relative to real ecosystems
with many additional factors and components. While standard lesson plans for the ecosystem in a bottle
prescribe the number and types of organisms, experimenting with proportions and components across a
classrooms ecosystems may provide a more realistic vision of ecosystem stability.
Students need to be exposed to multiple models during a unit that emphasize different aspects of
the phenomena, supporting different conceptual understandings but also illustrating the nature of science
and the limitations and strengths of modeling. As students are exposed to different models during a unit of
study, there is the opportunity for them to develop tools to critique a model. Teachers can teach students to
be critical by having them answer questions about a model for instance: What phenomena does this model
represent? What are the strengths of this model? What are the weaknesses of this model? and How
could you improve this model? Using models in the science classroom can be effective at teaching
concepts, facts and theories; however, for students to learn at both the conceptual and metaconceptual
level they will need to be exposed to several different models of a phenomena and be taught how to be
critical of models. As the science education community moves towards implementing the vision of the Next
Generation Science Standards, metaconceptually aware teaching practices around modeling must come
into place. Thus, we feel that this paper will be of interest to the NARST community.



Tensions between conceptual and metaconceptual learning with models
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