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A model can be very simple, such as writing total cost as a product of unit price and number bought, or using a geometric shape to describe a physical object like a coin. Even such simple models involve making choices. It is up to us whether to model a coin as a three-dimensional cylinder, or whether a two-dimensional disk works well enough for our purposes. Other situations—modeling a delivery route, a production schedule, or a comparison of loan amortizations—need more elaborate models that use other tools from the mathematical sciences. Real-world situations are not organized and labeled for analysis; formulating tractable models, representing such models, and analyzing them is appropriately a creative process. Like every such process, this depends on acquired expertise as well as creativity.
Modeling links classroom mathematics and statistics to everyday life, work, and decision-making. Modeling is the process of choosing and using appropriate mathematics and statistics to analyze empirical situations, to understand them better, and to improve decisions. Quantities and their relationships in physical, economic, public policy, social, and everyday situations can be modeled using mathematical and statistical methods. When making mathematical models, technology is valuable for varying assumptions, exploring consequences, and comparing predictions with data.
In situations like these, the models devised depend on a number of factors: How precise an answer do we want or need? What aspects of the situation do we most need to understand, control, or optimize? What resources of time and tools do we have? The range of models that we can create and analyze is also constrained by the limitations of our mathematical, statistical, and technical skills, and our ability to recognize significant variables and relationships among them. Diagrams of various kinds, spreadsheets and other technology, and algebra are powerful tools for understanding and solving problems drawn from different types of real-world situations.
One of the insights provided by mathematical modeling is that essentially the same mathematical or statistical structure can sometimes model seemingly different situations. Models can also shed light on the mathematical structures themselves, for example, as when a model of bacterial growth makes more vivid the explosive growth of the exponential function.