Modeling: The Activity that Shapes Us

An assortment of Lego blocks.

Modeling is so fundamental to your life that it may be something that you don’t explicitly acknowledge, or think about too much. We remember using model kits such as Tinkertoys or Legos as kids. When you use a modeling kit, you take components from the kit and put together something that allows you to represent something else. A dinosaur or an airplane? A virtual computer-based Minecraft world? By using sandboxes, Legos, and the like, we explored our world at an early age.

Major life-changing natural events such as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma are also modeled with significant levels of complexity. Not with Legos, but with diagrams and equations. Instead of a Lego block, insert a diagram with nodes and arrows, or some equations. Models are like languages. We use these languages to explain the world around us. In today’s world, many things are modeled using a computer because working with digital models is cheaper, and more flexible, than always trying to model with physical scale based components. You can model storm surge from a hurricane using a large water tank, and people do. Others use software. Each type of model has its own unique advantages. And models can do their magic at different levels — from simplistic and high level, to increasingly interconnected and detailed.

However, there is a catch to rallying around modeling. The word “modeling” is a bit like the word “art”. Does everyone agree about the meaning of “art” or “model?” To some, a model means a shape. To others, a model is a physical artifact such as a human (who is modeling for an agency), or a carved lump of clay. To others, a model is of change over time. For instance, modeling how a Hurricane changes over time is a different sort of model to one that defines the hurricane as a shape. And then there are “analog” vs. “digital” models. It all sounds complicated, right?

Modeling, though, has a certain logic — all models are made from rules and materials — whether digital or analog. In an upcoming paper for the 2017 Winter Simulation Conference, I position modeling within an interdisciplinary framework. The paper is entitled “Modeling as the Practice of Representation.” Models can be used to capture our knowledge, shapes, or behavior across disciplines. English literature and Painting can be discussed in the same context as models for Computer Science or Simulation. Tiny stepping stones connect everything together through a gradual process.

Modeling has the potential to connect all disciplines together. Some things we do are modeling but we may not see them as such. Take a digital photograph that you take on your cellphone. Maybe a photo of a favorite friend or place. At the heart of this photograph, there is an array of numbers, each of which captures the color for a pixel in that array. A photograph is a model of the real scene. The model takes out much of the scene, but retains some core parts. This ability of models to focus in on part of reality while abstracting away the rest is critical. Similarly, writing and speech capture the essence of modeling. By converting what you witness on your daily walk into strange symbols, grunts, and groans, you are modeling. You are capturing reality, and abstracting away the rest. You cannot capture everything.

The challenge I face as an educator is to explain (1) core types of models, and (2) how models can be transformed into other models. Getting through the “we only do one specific type of modeling” barrier is also a challenge. This is easily addressed when it becomes clear that there are a small number of key types of models and that they can operate in concert to define who we are, and how we view the world.

My favorite shrine to modeling is found in the Boston Museum of Science where there is a wonderful Making Models exhibit. The museum recognizes the vital role that models play in our thinking and culture. If you are in Boston, give it a whirl.

Making Models at the Boston Museum of Science

While disciplines at university may seem to pigeonhole us into separate boxes, making models is something that unites us, and brings us together in our quest to represent.