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Models as Instructional Tools

Grades: 5-8
Author: Dr. Kathie Owens
View Student Lesson Plan


Module Description

Participants will construct a simple model of the human lung and use this model to identify the structure and function of the lung and possible compromises to the function of the lung due to illness or disease. Within the conduct of this module participants will discuss the pros and cons of using concrete/physical models as a teaching tool.


  • Participants will discuss the structure and function of the lungs.
  • Participants will make, interpret, and evaluate a model.
  • Participants will discuss the use of models as a teaching tool.
  • Participants will plan an application of their learning to their science teaching.


Examples of concrete/physical models: globe, toy airplane and/or car, science models like a heart model or skeleton, math models like 3-D geometric cones and spheres, for examples. These models will be used for display in the opener, so choose models large enough for all to see. Make sure that at least some of the models are scale models; the others can be functional concrete models (i.e. not to scale). A good example of the functional concrete model is a model of the solar system, showing the relative positions of the planets and the sun.

Per person:

  • 1 Clear plastic 2 liter water/pop bottle (smaller bottles - 12 oz - could be used)
  • 1 Large balloon or a piece of plastic from a trash bag or shopping bag (about 7 x 7 inch square)
  • 1 Small balloon
  • 1 Rubber band
  • Scissors
  • Masking tape

Lesson Plan Template

Facilitator will need one craft knife for the group to share and a poster/diagram of the human lungs showing the rib cage, lobes, and diaphragm.



Display the examples of the concrete/physical models you have collected. Ask participants if they have ever used these models (or other concrete/physical models) in classroom instruction. Start a discussion of models by examining the display for evidence of scale and functional concrete models. Separate the models into two groups based on scale or not-to-scale. Tell participants that today they will be making a model of functioning human lungs and then evaluating this model for its effectiveness in teaching about the lungs.

Assessment: The evaluation is informal. Monitor the participants' discussions for understanding of scale and non-scale models. Encourage all members of the group to share their use of models.


Follow procedures in the student lesson plan Making a Model Lung

Participants should make and test their models (engagement and exploration portions of the student lesson). Depending on available time, participants can carry out the elaboration portion of the student lesson.

Assessment: Monitor the participants' work. Make sure all safety precautions and procedures are followed. Check to see that participants are manipulating their models to imitate the human diaphragm.


Explanation: Discuss the parts of the model as related to the poster/diagram of the human lungs. Point out that the poster/diagram is also a model. Ask participants to evaluate their model as an effective tool for teaching the structure and function of the human lungs. Points to bring out in discussion:

  • The lungs consist of tiny air sacks that function in breathing - the balloon-model cannot show the structure of these parts of the lungs, but mostly shows the function of the diaphragm in the process of breathing.
  • Once you accept that this lung model is more about function than about structure, the elaboration portion of the student lesson makes sense.
  • Return to the examples of concrete/physical models used in the engagement. Evaluate each model for its potential to be used effectively or to confuse/misinform students. Remember: the closer the model corresponds with its target, the less potential for misconceptions to form.
  • Discuss the inability of some models to be scale models and whether this shortcoming might impede learning. Should students be allowed to make non-scale models (a volcano, for example)?
  • Discuss using more than one model (for example, a picture/diagram/poster coupled with a concrete/physical model) to lessen misconceptions.

Assessment: Monitor the discussion. Ask participants to summarize features of models (for example, color, size of component parts, authenticity of functioning parts) that they will evaluate before choosing to use a concrete/physical in their science teaching.


Ask participants to give examples from their own teaching relating ways they use models to teach science concepts. Instead of using the elaboration portion of the lesson for students as part of the participants' learning experience, we suggest that time be allotted for planning classroom implementation activities related to using a concrete/physical model to teach a science concept.

Each plan should include: learning goals for students, materials needed, safety concerns, activities done by the teacher, activities done by the students, and an assessment of the students' learning. See Lesson Plan Template.

Assessment: As time permits, give participants an opportunity to share their classroom implementation plans. If possible, follow up with participants as they carry out their plans in their classrooms. Look for evidence of the use of multiple models and questioning/explanations to students to compare the model to the target that it represents.


According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Benchmarks for Science Literacy, one of the four "common themes" of science is "models". A model is an object or symbol that represents some aspect of another system (or target). This module focuses primarily on concrete/physical models, although other types of models (for example: metaphors, mathematical, computer), properly used, can facilitate learning. Concrete/physical models may have a close correspondence to their targets, but learners must recognize that the model is not the target. Teachers have to help learners interpret the model to make sense of the target. Caution must be exercised so that erroneous interpretation does not occur.

Science Standards

NSES Teaching Standards: B Teachers of science guide and facilitate learning. In doing this teachers

  • Focus and support inquiries while interacting with students.
  • Orchestrate discourse among students about scientific ideas.
  • Challenge students to accept and share responsibility for their own learning.
  • Recognize and respond to student diversity and encourage all students to participate fully in science learning.
  • Encourage and model the skills of scientific inquiry, as well as the curiosity, openness to new ideas and data, and skepticism that characterize science.

NSES Professional Development Standard A, B:

  • (A) Professional Development for teachers of science requires learning essential science content through the perspectives and methods of inquiry.
  • (B) Professional Development for teachers of science requires integrating knowledge of science, learning, pedagogy, and students: it also requires applying that knowledge to science teaching.

Best Teaching Practices

  • Use of Models

Time Frame

1.5 to 2 hours


Collect plastic bottles, examples of models, and assemble the materials. Participants could be asked to bring their own set of materials. Cut a small starter slit in the bottle just past the bottom part of the bottle that bulges, parallel to the bottom.

Approximate cost of materials - under $5


Remind participants to use materials for their intended purpose and to exercise extra caution when handling scissors and craft knife. Participants may want to take their models with them for use in their classes. Recycle the plastic bottles, if models are disassembled.


Have each group of participants suggest how they have effectively used physical models (particularly ones created by their students) in their classrooms.

Explanation of Science


  1. The ribs' function is to hold the lungs within a closed, inflexible, solid box.
  2. Lungs have no muscles; therefore, they cannot move themselves. Changing air pressure outside the lungs is the only force that moves them.
  3. At the bottom of the rib cage is the diaphragm, a solid muscle.
  4. Below the diaphragm is your abdomen, which holds your stomach, liver, bladder, and intestines.
  5. The diaphragm is like the "handle" that pushes up or pulls down. You push up your diaphragm when you suck in your stomach. That squeezes your lungs, causing you to exhale, because there is less space in the rib cage. (If the rib cage were not stiff, the lungs would not be squeezed.
  6. Pulling the diaphragm down causes the lungs to inflate since there is more room inside the rib cage.
  7. A breathing machine changes the air pressure outside the lungs causing air to move in and out.

Models: We construct mental models of how the world works as we learn science. When we express what we have learned we do so with a model, that is, the oral or written expression is a representation of the mental model we have built in our minds as we learned. Models are powerful teaching tools but must be used with caution in the science class. When using models keep the following points in mind:

  • Models should be comprehensible to your students – if the model does not portray the target well, students may develop poor understanding of the target concept
  • Carefully test your model to be sure that it gives you the result that you desire when using it in the instructional process
  • Use more than one model when possible because students' construction of their mental model of the concept will be richer when two or more models are used.

There are many kinds of models: mental (similes, metaphors, analogies), concrete/physical [including scale and functional concrete (not-to-scale)], diagrams and maps, mathematical, and computer. When we use models we must evaluate their effectiveness for achieving the learning goal.


None available for this module.


For more information about the use of models in teaching earth and space science, see: Gilbert, S. W. & Ireton, S. W. (2003). Understanding models in earth and space science. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association Press.

Lesson Implementation Template

Download Lesson Implementation Template: Word Document or PDF File


Seat everyone in groups with diversity in mind. Make sure each person participates in the discussions.


None available for this module.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.