Models and Simulations


The Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Models allow us to create a physical or virtual representation of an object. Above, you can see that the concept for the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi began as a computer-generated model using a CAD (Computer Aided Design) program such as Autodesk AutoCAD Architecture or Graphisoft ArchiCAD. As the architect refines the model, he or she can test strength, stress, and other important factors before beginning construction. Models can also be physical representations of real-world objects such as a scaled version of the Rotherhithe Bridge shown.

Ultimately, models (digital or physical) enable us to represent real-world phenomena in a way that can be studied and enhanced.


There exists a branch of computer science that exclusively focuses on the design and implementation of computer-generated models to test situations that may be too dangerous, costly, or otherwise inconvenient to test in the real world. Simulations use models to test a hypothesis about a situation. For example, what would happen if an object (like a bird) flew into a jet plane midflight? Thankfully, engine manufacturers do not have to spend time and resources throwing random objects (like birds) into a jet engine to see the effects on the engine. Models and simulations facilitate the formulation and refinement of hypotheses related to the objects or phenomena under consideration. Simulations allow hypotheses to be tested by mimicking real-world events without the cost or danger of building and testing the phenomena. Then, hypotheses can be refined by examining the insights that models and simulations provide.

Models (and simulations using those models) are useful tools in a decision-making process while saving time and money. In Unit 1, Computational Thinking, you used a simulation in the activity about Heuristics called Hill Climb. This Processing program is a simulation where a robot looked for the highest relative point in a randomly generated environment and relocated there. If we really did have these gold mining robots, it would be much easier to run a simulation to test our algorithm than to wait to see how many robots survived the next flood.

Saving Time and Money

How are video games saving the government money? Read the following article to see how “Better Simulation Could Save the Military Millions.”

Simulations can facilitate extensive and rapid testing of models. This allows companies and other organizations to iterate, or repeatedly adjust their models based on previous test runs, by simply running a program and not actually taking the time, money, and hassle of doing the thing in real life. For example, jet engine companies, like Rolls Royce or General Electric, can heave virtual birds into virtual engines without ruining a $35 million product or removing the “no animals were harmed” stickers from planes to iteratively design the best possible fowl-free engine.

The time required for simulations is impacted by the level of detail and quality of the models and the software and hardware used for the simulation. I think most of you would agree the time and detail it takes to create a program that models a jet engine exploding would be significantly more than a running simulation created in Scratch. Models may use different abstractions or levels of abstraction depending on the objects or phenomena being posed.

On The Horizon

Computer scientists use information about conditions to create and study a wide range of complex systems. Analysis from the results of simulations is usually able to generate new knowledge and new hypotheses related to the phenomena being modeled. According to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), computational modeling has benefited society in many ways. Like weather forecasting and earthquake predictions, the following are just some of the examples related to computational modeling that the NIBIB is busy researching:

  • Improving healing of chronic wounds
  • Reducing osteoarthritis following knee surgery
  • Multiscale modeling of microbial biofilms for improved treatment of antibiotic resistant infections

With continued advancement in computational models, one day you could be flying to work!