Computer models and simulations – examples

ITGS computer model

Modelling and Simulations used to be one of the more difficult ITGS topics to teach. Finding examples of computer models and simulations has always been a bit of a challenge. In the classroom you can use a spreadsheet to simulate dice rolls and then compare them with real world rolls, but it is a very basic idea. The textbook includes the climate model example (which is more complex), but it is still not very exciting visually.

However, since the textbook was published quite a few new interactive model examples have become available online. Previously I have posted about Gizmos‘s great collection of models. Recently I came across Phet, another great site with a wide range of models covering maths, earth science, and several other areas.

Solar system model
Playing with planets

There are several ways I use interactive models with ITGS students. Models such as pendulum lab and Ohm’s Law are great for helping students understand how variables and mathematical processes are recreated using a computer. When using these it is also worth considering if any simplifications have been made to the models (the projectile motion model is great for this).

Other models, such as the plate tectonics, glaciers, and greenhouse effect models help us understand the types of situations where models are often used – in real life we obviously cannot speed up or slow down physical processes, nor alter key variables to test predictions. In the wider context, these examples can be linked to TOK. As scientific research increasingly relies on models we can question not just the reliability of models but also consider how the results from a computer model fit in with the evidence-based paradigm of the natural sciences.

There are also several Phet models, such as balancing act, salts & solubility, and density, where students may be able to try the experiments for themselves. This should enable them compare the models’ predictions with real life (and in a much more exciting way than the dice rolling activity). Discussing the reasons for any discrepancies between real life and predicted results is a good way to get students talking about computer models using key technical language.

Finally, Phet includes a number of models that are simply designed to teach basic concepts (such as resistance in a wire). These link nicely to topic 2.2 Education and Training, and are good examples of how computer models can be used in the classroom. Using using Phet with my students I asked them to consider which areas of their IB subjects would be easier to understand if they had models to help them – they came up with some interesting ideas.

You can view the full range of Phet models here. Each model on can be used online, downloaded, or embedded into a web page. In the mean time, here are a few to play with:


Balancing Act model

Projectile motion model

Solar system model

Computer models and simulations - examples
Article Name
Computer models and simulations - examples
Interactive examples of computer models and simulations for the ITGS classroom, covering maths, environmental and earth sciences, physics, and many more areas.
Publisher Name
Stuart Gray
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