Modeling Instruction – Transforming Science Education Nationwide

Jane Jackson, Arizona State University
David Hestenes, Arizona State University

High school physics is the chief pathway to college STEM majors and STEM careers. STEM jobs are growing twice as fast as other fields. Yet we are far from the AAPT goal of “physics for all,” partly because the U.S.A. has a severe shortage of qualified physics teachers. Professional development (PD) in physics for teachers is thus crucial. A healthy economy and society require physics.1

Modeling Instruction is an effective way to teach; it strengthens the STEM pathway and improves scientific and mathematical literacy. Workshops are ongoing nationwide, and teachers can participate both for skill development and becoming more active in a community of teachers.

Modeling Instruction was developed by Arizona State University (ASU) physics professor David Hestenes and Malcolm Wells, a veteran high school physics teacher in ASU’s city of Tempe, Arizona. It corrects many weaknesses of the traditional lecture-demonstration method, including fragmentation of knowledge, student passivity, and persistence of naive beliefs about the physical world.

The ASU Modeling Instruction Program was funded from 1990 to 2005 with grants from the National Science Foundation . It was institutionalized at ASU in 2001 as a summer graduate program for science teachers.2 It is primarily for lifelong PD and is the foundation of the ASU Master of Natural Science (MNS) degree for physics and chemistry teachers. Up to 75 teachers participate each summer. Singapore, tops in the world in student international science tests, has sent 54 physics and chemistry teachers in 12 summers. The program is crucial to remedy chronic shortages of physics and chemistry teachers in Arizona.

Modeling Instruction at ASU was rated an Accomplished STEM program by Change the Equation, a coalition of Fortune 500 CEOs, in 2015. Modeling Instruction was designated as an Exemplary K-12 science program and a Promising K-12 educational technology program by two expert panels of the U.S. Department of Education. It received the 2014 Excellence in Physics Education Award by the American Physical Society.3

Modeling Instruction has expanded nationwide under direction of the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit established in 2005 by teachers to ensure sustainability of Modeling Instruction. Biology and middle school Modeling Workshops are held; astronomy and earth science Modeling Workshops are being developed now. In a typical summer, the AMTA coordinates 60 multi-week Modeling Workshops at 30 sites in 20 states, serving 1000 high school and middle school science teachers. A few online courses are held during the school year. An online support system provides year-round help. As of 2018, more than 10,200 teachers in 49 states, including at least 10% of physics teachers nationwide, have taken Modeling Workshops and become more effective STEM educators.

Currently, a big obstacle for most public school teachers is that teachers must pay registration (typically $750), making Modeling Workshops unaffordable. Up to ten years ago, most Modeling Workshops were grant-funded; however, since then the federal government has restricted funding to high poverty schools, and finally ended ALL competitive grant programs for teacher PD. (Federal Title II funds for teacher PD are states’ and school districts’ responsibility. As of 2016, no Title II funds are set aside at state level for higher education faculty grant competitions for K-12 teacher PD. Most physics teachers cannot access school district Title II funds, as physics competes with all other K-12 subjects and grade levels. Also, federal and state Math and Science Partnerships programs have been discontinued. Nothing is left.)

If the U.S.A. is to maintain its global competitiveness, it must act on research showing that high school physics is the chief STEM pathway. Long-term teacher PD in physics and other sciences is essential to improve student learning; ten years of deliberate practice are needed to become an expert, research shows. Thus teachers need several Modeling Workshops.

Modeling Workshops empower teachers to be effective. In a series of intensive three-week workshops over two summers, teachers improve their physics, chemistry, or biology content knowledge. They are equipped with a robust teaching methodology for developing student abilities to make sense of physical experience, understand scientific claims, articulate coherent opinions of their own and defend them with cogent arguments, and evaluate evidence in support of justified belief; i.e., students become scientifically literate.

Students in Modeling Instruction classrooms experience first-hand the richness and excitement of learning about the natural world. They transfer their knowledge to daily life. One example comes from Phoenix modeler Robert McDowell. He wrote that, under traditional instruction, “when asked a question about some science application in a movie, I might get a few students who would cite 1-2 errors, but usually with uncertainty. Since I started Modeling, the students now bring up their own topics... not just from movies, but their everyday experiences.” One of his students wrote, “Mr. McDowell, I was at a Diamondback baseball game recently, and all I could think of was all the physics problems involved."

Explore, explain, apply (in that order): Classroom instruction is organized into two-week modeling cycles that engage students in building scientific models, evaluating them, and applying them in concrete situations. Rather than lecture, the teacher guides the class to ask questions of nature. To answer the questions, teams of students design experiments and use the computer to gather data. From their data they construct mathematical models and defend them to the class. They apply models to different situations. The course becomes coherent because it is centered on a few basic models. It brings the classroom closer to the workplace because modeling is a central activity of scientists, engineers, and many in business.4 It is a prime implementation of interactive engagement, the cognitively most effective teaching strategy.5 Short videos of classroom instruction have been produced by public media – we recommend the 12-minute WNET production, A Modeling Approach to Physics Instruction.

Modeling Instruction is a curriculum design, rather than a fixed curriculum; thus teachers can flexibly adapt it to different courses and student abilities. Instructional materials developed for the regular/core first year physics course have a proven track record, as they have been used by physics teachers all over the nation since 1995. Sample physics materials (excluding evaluation instruments) are freely available at the AMTA website.

The effectiveness of Modeling Instruction has been evaluated with well-established standardized instruments, chief among them being the Force Concept Inventory (FCI).6 Our FCI data for 20,000 high school students nationwide, most in regular first year physics, reveal that student learning gains under Modeling Instruction are typically double those under traditional instruction. Student FCI gains for “ordinary” Arizona teachers, three-fourths of whom were not physics majors, are almost as high as those for leading teachers nationwide. Teachers who implement Modeling Instruction most fully have the highest student posttest FCI mean scores.

Modeling Instruction has proven successful with students who have not traditionally done well in science, while enhancing the performance of all students. Teachers report improved achievement on ACT science and AP physics tests, higher enrollment in advanced high school science electives, more STEM majors in college, and enhanced achievement in college courses (across the curriculum!).

Modeling Instruction aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The National Research Council (NRC) book, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, is the research basis for NGSS. Emeritus physics professor Helen Quinn of Stanford University, chairman of the NRC committee that authored the Framework book, told David Hestenes later that what was written about modeling there was informed by Modeling Instruction. A nationwide survey showed that "on average, high school teachers who have completed 90 hours of professional development in Modeling Instruction (a 3-week summer workshop) feel significantly more motivated and better prepared for NGSS than high school teachers who are non-Modelers."7

Modeling Instruction originated in calculus-level physics at Arizona State University. Several post-secondary institutions now use Modeling Instruction, notably Florida International University, Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, Arizona.8 Eugenia Etkina, developer at Rutgers of the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) for college and high school physics, agrees with us that ISLE and Modeling Instruction are super-compatible.9

Jane Jackson has co-directed the Modeling Instruction Program in the ASU Department of Physics since 1994, after teaching post-secondary physics for 18 years.

David Hestenes is Emeritus Professor of Physics at ASU. His research is in foundations of physics, physics education, and mathematical physics -- specifically Geometric Algebra, a unified mathematical language for physics.


1. A discussion with research references is at

2. Hestenes, D., Megowan-Romanowicz, C., Osborn-Popp, S., Jackson, J., & Culbertson, R. (2011). A graduate program for high school physics and physical science teachers. American Journal of Physics 79(9), 971-979.

3. These awards, NSF grant findings, research and evaluation (& FCI), and resources for teachers who use Modeling Instruction are at See also the AMTA website:

4. Jackson, Jane, Dukerich, Larry, & Hestenes, David (2008). Modeling Instruction: An Effective Model for Science Education, Science Educator 17(1): 10-17.

5. Chi, M. T. H., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49, 219-243.


7. Haag, S., & Megowan, C. (2015). Next Generation Science Standards: A National Mixed-Methods Study on Teacher Readiness. School Science and Mathematics, 115(8), 416-426.

8. Weblinks to resources are at in the section called “Modeling Instruction in College”.


Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.