Int. J. Dev. Biol. 47: 225 - 229 (2003)
© UPV/EHU Press

Using models to enhance the intellectual content of learning in developmental biology.

John C McLachlan

Peninsula Medical School, Tamar Science Park, Plymouth, UK.

ABSTRACT Models have been particularly useful in developmental biology over the last 30 years. At first, underlying control mechanisms were poorly understood, but over time a wealth of detailed information became available to provide an increasingly detailed knowledge of underlying mechanisms, at levels from genes through cells to organs, organisms and populations. Models are also of great value in teaching developmental biology, as they allow students to explore phenomena hard to perceive directly because of their scale, accessibility, expense or other considerations. A model may allow students to "experiment" in ways which would be impractical in real life, as well as give them a deep understanding of competing hypotheses of development. Lastly, students can be challenged to produce models of their own, whereas only rarely are they able to carry out original experiments. I discuss two main kinds of models and their uses in generating, testing and expounding hypotheses and point out dangers in the use of models in education. Models may draw upon and reflect the consensus paradigm in the field: a researcher may be able to appreciate that models are interim conditional statements of probability and use them to generate new knowledge. A student may be less able to do so and may fail to appreciate where new knowledge will come from. And unlike physics, biology is stochastic and contingent and can never be entirely deduced from first principles, implying that models can never be as perfect in any biological field as they can be in some other fields.