Creating & Using Physical & Graphic Models in Science

Instructor: Matthew Bergstresser

Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education

The earth is enormous! Studying the earth can be overwhelming because of its size and scope, so models of it are made to make it easier to understand. In this lesson, we will explore physical and graphical models, including what they are used for and how they are made.

Marshmallow and Chocolate Volcanos

You can't make a real volcano, and you may not even be able to travel to see one! It is common in science classes for the teacher to assign students to make models of various processes on Earth such as volcanic eruptions. Students have made volcanoes out of rice crispy treats, or even a pile of marshmallows covered in chocolate. That is great for students learning about the earth, but when it comes to actual academic research and education, more advanced models have to be made.

Physical Models of Systems

Physical models are three-dimensional objects that can be held and manipulated in order to study an object or phenomenon it represents. An example of this would be a three-dimensional model of Earth's plate boundaries. They might consist of a set of foam, cardboard or plastic slabs that can be oriented in specific ways representing the different types of tectonic plate boundaries. Tectonic plates are sections of Earth's crust that break, and the parts move relative to each other creating mountains or rifts.

These models can be shaped by hand with clay to make molds. After the molds are made, resins or plastic can be poured into the molds to make the casts, which might be painted or not depending on how realistic the model has to be.

Another method is to use a metal cast to stamp out plastic models.

Diagram 1 shows a very simplistic physical model of plate boundaries made out of cardboard.

Diagram 1. Model A shows a divergent boundary, with simulated magma rising in the void. Model B shows a convergent boundary with simulated mountain building. Model C shows a transform boundary where plates slide parallel to each other.

3-D printers are also becoming more mainstream when making physical models. A computer program is used to draw an object in three-dimensions. A machine then takes that drawing and prints it using liquid plastic that solidifies or a special powder that solidifies in UV light. It is the opposite process whereby a wooden block or mass of clay is sculpted by removing material. A 3-D printer starts with nothing and adds material layer by layer until the whole object has been printed!

3-D printed object

Graphical Models

Graphical models are visual representations, graphs depicting data, or charts simplifying the display of data for comparison purposes. All of these can be hand-drawn or made using a computer with appropriate software. Let's go through a few examples of graphical models.

Visual Representations

Pangaea is known as the super continent that existed over 200 million years ago. We can't go back in time to take pictures of Pangaea, or take measurements, so we make a two-dimensional graphical model of it, and show how it changed over hundreds of millions of years.

Tracing continents through time

This graphical model was made using computer software, but it might have started with a scientist drawing it first as a prototype, which is an initial rendering of something to get a visual representation from the imagination to something concrete.

Graphs of Data

Graphs representing data is a very useful tool in the study of science. The old saying goes ''a picture is worth a thousand words,'' and this applies to graphs too! Visually representing data can give scientists, and those learning science insight into what is happening in a situation. It can also help serve the public in the chance an emergency situation arises like an impending tsunami!

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account