Thinking with Models

Steven Kimbrough
Course Code: 

When a flu pandemic strikes, who should get vaccinated first? What’s our best strategy for minimizing the damage of global climate change? Why is Philadelphia racially segregated? Why do most sexually reproducing species have two sexes, in roughly even proportions? These and many other scientific and practical problems require us to get a handle on complex systems. And an important part of deepening our understanding and sharpening our intuitions requires us to think with models, that is, to use models in our deliberations about what to believe and what to do.

Modeling is the construction and analysis of idealized representations of real-world phenomena. This practice is ubiquitous across the sciences, and enters into many practical decisions from setting international policy to making everyday business decisions. The principal aim of this course is to acquaint students with the modeling process and, especially, to help students learn how to think critically about modeling results, as well as how to construct, analyze, and verify such models.

Students who take this course will learn about the varied practices of modeling, and will learn how to construct, analyze, and validate models. Most importantly, students who take this course will learn how to critically evaluate the predictions and explanations generated by models, whatever the source of these results. While we will familiarize students with a variety of types of models, our primary focus will be on computer simulations, as they are increasingly relied upon for scientific research and practical deliberation. In addition to studying general methodological discussions about modeling, this will be a ”hands on,” laboratory-based course. Students will practice manipulating, modifying, and analyzing models, as well as constructing models from scratch.