Understanding Systems with Computational Models - Digital Promise

Understanding Systems with Computational Models

Computational models are representations of systems with interrelated parts. They represent measurable (quantitative) relationships within systems and change behavior based on different inputs into variables. Computational models are particularly useful for understanding and exploring systems that can’t be observed because of size, time, or visibility.

We have identified the following three sub-practices of understanding systems with computational models:

  • Using and Modifying Computational Models to Explore a Driving Question: Students use a computational model to explore a driving question by testing different inputs.
  • Creating Computational Models: Students create a computational model depicting relationships between key components of a system.
  • Assessing Computational Models: Students compare a computational model to a real-world system to analyze the overall accuracy of the model.

Download the Resources

Explore the resources below to consider how to integrate computational models in your classroom.

How computational models can be used in the classroom

Our teacher partner from Vancouver Public Schools helped students to use, modify, and create computational models to explore scientific phenomena in her middle school science class.

“I always have students create 1-3 ‘I wonder’ questions related to the topic we are discussing. Then they explore a computational model to test out their questions. That was the number one component that engaged kids. Several students from my class chose to create a model on alternative energy sources. One student created a windmill. He changed the number of blades, wind direction and speed of the wind, which all affected how it worked.” – Teacher, Vancouver Public Schools

Look Fors

Teachers will know students are understanding systems with computational models because they may observe the following student actions:

Using and Modifying Computational Models to Explore a Driving Question

  • Identifying a question to explore using a computational model
  • Setting up multiple and different scenarios to collect data from a computational model
  • Making predictions about how the model will behave with different inputs

Creating Computational Models

  • Identifying different parts of the system that the model is representing
  • Defining relationships between different parts of a system
  • Automating relationships between parts of the system with a flowchart or programming/modeling software

Assessing Computational Models

  • Considering how the model represents the real-world system
  • Considering bias in the outputs of a computational model

Prompting Questions

Ask students to engage in understanding systems with computational models and/or reflect on their process or progress with these prompting questions:

Resources and Examples

Explore examples of middle school science activities integrated with computational thinking practices. Although the examples are topic-specific, templates are available for you to design opportunities in different topics or contexts.


The following rubrics outline components of understanding systems with computational models that can be utilized to assess student work.


Explore this curated list of supports to implement, explore, and promote computational thinking practices in your classroom.

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