Skip to main content

Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications

Written by:
May 1, 2024
Written on . Posted in Math Curriculum, Math Modeling.

How to Adapt Mathematical Modeling for Different Grade Levels

Mathematical modeling is a vital component of mathematics curriculum, offering students a bridge to connect abstract mathematical concepts with the tangible challenges of the real world. 

Drawing from the insights in the GAIMME report—a collaborative effort by COMAP and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM)—this blog post explores how to adapt mathematical modeling for students at different educational stages. It emphasizes the importance of modeling not only for academic purposes but also for everyday decision-making and problem-solving.

The adaptability of math modeling across various grade levels makes it an invaluable educational tool. However, this same adaptability demands that educators skillfully tailor their lessons to meet the developmental and cognitive capacities of their students. We'll discuss strategies for scaling and adapting mathematical modeling lessons to ensure age-appropriate complexity and engagement, from the curious minds in middle school to the analytical thinkers in undergraduate programs.

Middle School: Laying the Foundation

In middle school, the focus should be on introducing the basic concepts of mathematical modeling in a manner that is both engaging and relatable. At this stage, students are developing their abstract thinking abilities and can benefit greatly from concrete examples. 

  • Use relatable scenarios: Choose topics that are part of the students' everyday experiences, like planning a school event or designing a simple game. These contexts make math more relevant and interesting.
  • Simplify the modeling process: Break down the mathematical modeling process into clear, manageable steps. Start with defining the problem, making assumptions, identifying variables, and creating simple models using basic arithmetic or geometry.
  • Incorporate visual aids: Use diagrams, physical models, and interactive tools to help students visualize problems and solutions. This tactile approach can enhance understanding and retention.

High School: Deepening Understanding

High school students are ready to tackle more complex math models and can begin to appreciate the nuances of mathematical abstraction. The key is to challenge them while providing the support needed to explore more sophisticated concepts. 

  • Introduce more variables and complexity: Gradually increase the number of variables and the complexity of the equations. This can involve transitioning from linear to quadratic models or incorporating basic elements of calculus or statistics.
  • Encourage interdisciplinary projects: Use mathematical modeling to solve problems in biology, economics, environmental science, and other subjects. This not only shows the applicability of math across different fields but also enriches students' learning experiences.
  • Promote the use of technology: Integrate software and online platforms that support mathematical modeling, such as graphing calculators, spreadsheets, and specialized modeling software. This familiarizes students with the tools used in higher education and professional settings.

Undergraduate: Refining and Applying Skills

At the undergraduate level, students should be engaging with mathematical modeling in its most sophisticated form. The focus shifts to refining their skills, applying theory to practice, and tackling real-world problems with less guidance. 

  • Explore advanced topics: Introduce more complex mathematical theories and methods, such as differential equations, advanced statistics, and computational modeling. These topics provide the depth needed for serious academic and professional work.
  • Foster independent and group projects: Encourage students to undertake individual and team-based projects that require in-depth research, complex modeling, and extensive analysis. This prepares them for the collaborative nature of professional scientific and engineering work.
  • Incorporate real-world data and case studies: Use actual data and case studies from research, industry, and government reports to challenge students to apply their modeling skills to real and current issues, enhancing their problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities.

Across All Levels: Best Practices

While the complexity and focus of mathematical modeling will vary by educational level, certain best practices are universally beneficial. 

  • Emphasize the modeling cycle: Regardless of grade level, stress the iterative nature of mathematical modeling—formulating, solving, testing, and refining models. This reinforces the understanding that modeling is a dynamic process.
  • Promote collaboration and communication: Encourage students to work together and communicate their ideas and findings effectively. Collaboration fosters diverse perspectives and communication skills are critical in all fields of study and work.
  • Provide opportunities for reflection: After completing a modeling project, have students reflect on what worked, what didn't, and how they could approach problems differently in the future. This reflection deepens learning and encourages growth.

Adapting mathematical modeling lessons across different educational levels is not without its challenges, but the rewards are substantial. By carefully scaling complexity and ensuring content is age-appropriate, educators can ignite students' interest in mathematics, enhance their problem-solving skills, and prepare them for a world where analytical thinking is more valuable than ever.

Written by


The Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications is an award-winning non-profit organization whose mission is to improve mathematics education for students of all ages. Since 1980, COMAP has worked with teachers, students, and business people to create learning environments where mathematics is used to investigate and model real issues in our world.