Models in Science


ISCI 422

Course Description

This multi-disciplinary course focuses on the concept of models in science. What is a model? What is it useful for? How does it help our understanding of science? When is one model better than another? These are the questions we will be addressing by developing our own models and studying others. We will discover features common to all scientific models, regardless of discipline, and learn to construct and use our own models.

Learning Objectives

The course is built around two meta-goals. Years from now every student should still…

  1. Investigate new ideas with curiosity and skepticism.
  2. Understand the role of science, particularly its advantages and limitations.

To achieve these meta-goals the course is constructed with four concrete goals. On completion of the course each student should be able to…

  1. Construct an original scientific model.
  2. Assess a given scientific model.
  3. Explain what science is.
  4. Explain what scientific models are.

Tentative Schedule

The following schedule is subject to change but should give you a sense of what we'll cover in the class. Visit the course Connect page for current information and updates.

Class Date Topic Pre-reading Homework due
Tutorial 1 2017-09-06 Introduction & first model    
Lecture 1 2017-09-11 NetLogo 1 - play Rauch 2002, pp. 1-6 (6 pages)  
Tutorial 2 2017-09-13 NetLogo 2 - implement first model    
Lecture 2 2017-09-18 Ways of knowing Wilensky & Rand 2015, pp. 128-141 (14 pages) Assignment 1
Tutorial 3 2017-09-20 NetLogo 3 - exploration    
Lecture 3 2017-09-25 Science vs. pseudoscience Behe et al. 2002 (8 pages) Project literature search
Tutorial 4 2017-09-27 Pitch your project    
Lecture 4 2017-10-02 Define science and scientific model Popper 2002, pp. 9-10, 16-20 (7 pages) Peer-grade literature searches
Tutorial 5 2017-10-04 Speed dating to find project partner    
Thanksgiving day (holiday) 2017-10-09      
Tutorial 6 2017-10-11 Building a project outline   Assignment 2
Lecture 5 2017-10-16 Kinds of models   Project outline
Tutorial 7 2017-10-18 Work session    
Lecture 6 2017-10-23 Parsimony vs. accuracy    
Tutorial 8 2017-10-25 Model appraisal    
Lecture 7 2017-10-30 Other modeling trade-offs    
Tutorial 9 2017-11-01 Work session   Project testing & calibration
Lecture 8 2017-11-06 To be announced    
Tutorial 10 2017-11-08 To be announced    
Holiday in lieu of Remembrance Day 2017-11-13      
Tutorial 11 2017-11-15 Work session    
Lecture 9 2017-11-20 Poster design    
Tutorial 12 2017-11-22 Your project in the big picture    
Lecture 10 2017-11-27 Poster session   Project poster
Tutorial 13 2017-11-29 Wrap up   Project report

Mark Distribution

Grades will be based on assignments, a term project, and a final exam. The mark distribution is:

Component Weight
Assignments 20
Project 60
Final exam 20
Total 100

There will be two assignments, each worth 10 marks, and a term project. The project will give students hands-on experience in developing a model to answer an original research question. It will be broken up into five stages to give lots of opportunity for feedback and direction:

Project stage Weight
Literature search (peer-graded) 10
Outline 10
Model testing & calibration 10
Poster (peer-graded) 10
Final report 20
Project subtotal 60

Flex Points

Students may accumulate up to 20 flex points over the term; at the end of the course they will be used to automatically modify the weights of the components of the course. The weight of each student's worst component will be automatically reduced by their accumulated flex points and the weight of the best component increased accordingly. By earning flex points you can tailor the grading scheme to favour your learning style!


Rikky does well on assignments but lousy on tests. He scores 90% on the assignments, 75% on the project, and 60% on the exam. With the default grading scheme Rikky would earn an overall grade of 75%.

But throughout the course Rikky earned 10 flex points, so the weights of his best and worst component are adjusted as shown:

Component Score Weight
Assignments 90 20+10=30
Project 75 60
Final exam 60 20-10=10
Total 78 100

So, Rikky is able to increase his overall grade from 75% to 78% by earning flex points throughout the term.

Late Penalties

Late submission of homework assignments and project work may be possible, but only upon written application in advance of the deadline with supporting arguments. The standard penalty of 10% per day may be reduced for convincing arguments. While it's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission, the reverse is more likely to be successful.

Required Materials

The following materials are required:

  • Laptop computer running Mac OS X, Windows, or Linux. (Sorry, iOS, Windows Phone, or Android won't suffice for our purposes.)


Additional course content is available to registered students via Connect:

  • Announcements
  • Readings
  • Lecture Notes
  • Quizzes
  • Grades

To log in, please click on the CWL Login button below:

Registration Details

Please register in the Lecture and one of the tutorial sections (the Friday section will only be opened if the class is too large for a single tutorial).