Hands-on class activities on the cell

by Stephanie Chasteen on January 12, 2010

Looking for some activities to jazz up your class lecture on the cell and biology?  Here are a few hands-on teaching activities for middle school or high school:

Here are some cool cells to look at under a microscope:

  • Cheek cells
  • Onion cells
  • Thin smears of ripe versus green banana, stained lightly with iodine.  Says Karen Kalumuck:  “You should see sickle-shaped structures that are amyloplastics – starch storage organelles.  You’ll see more of these in one of the types of bananas than the other, and can correlate with taste.  Predict which banana will have more darkly staining amyloplasts?  What happens to the starch?
  • Compare tomato cells with pulp cells.  The skin cells are bricklike, providing structure, whereas the pulp cells are like balloons, to store starch with the lowest surface area to volume ratio.

No access to a microscope? Check out the Exploratorium’s Microscope Imaging Station — you can see videos of sea urchin cells dividing, stem cells, a zebrafish heart cell beating, and more. Any of the images here can be used in educational settings.

You can also build a cell model, and “scale up” cell and organelle dimensions to human scale.  If a cell was the size of my head, how big would a mitochrondria be?  Or, build a 3D diaorama inside a shoebox.  One teacher uses the analogy of a school — the nucleus is the principal’s office, the DNA is the school files, the teachers are the ribosomes, the students would be proteins, and the school bus is a vesicle.  Or, list a set of different analogies (the cell is like “The Simpsons”, the cell is like “a city”)  and let students choose, and make their set of analogical functions.

You can also model a cell membrane using soap film. You can stick a wet finger through a bubble film, just like plasma membranes are selectively permeable.   See this activity here.

This Traits of Life website at the Exploratorium has a set of online interactives and downloadable posters and articles.

You can do a play or drama about the cell — here’s an example about the Immune System from our teaching tips podcast.

Create a bingo or board game where students read off the functions of the parts of their cells, and then place those parts on the cell diagram.


Matt Kriebel January 13, 2010 at 3:54 am

Don’t forget milk, pond water, and yes, blood.

Derek Bruff January 18, 2010 at 7:04 pm

When I saw the title of this post, I thought for a moment it was about teaching with cell phone! Shows you where my head has been lately…

patricia April 18, 2012 at 3:02 pm

wow is all i have to say

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