View Learn.Genetics Materials

Amazing Cells

Overview

Here you’ll find a number of multimedia and paper-based classroom resources, featuring dynamic and realistic depictions to help you explore the inner-most workings of cells.

The Cells In Context section describes a sequence of related resources that work together as a middle school cell biology unit.

The Cells Communicate section describes additional resources designed for high school.

Interactive Tools

These flexible and interactive multimedia pieces can be used in a number of ways throughout any unit on cells. They are also incorporated into the lesson sequence below.

Virtual Microscope

This magical microscope lets viewers jump between levels of magnification from whole organisms to organelles. It includes multiple slide sets with stopping points for organ systems, tissues, cells, and cellular components.

Inside a Cell

This dynamic tour features 3 different cell types, each with animated depictions of organelles working together to carry out basic life functions. Explore the functions to learn the name of each cell structure and its role in the cell.

Cell Size and Scale

Use an interactive slider to compare the relative sizes of objects, cells, organelles, molecules, and other biological structures.

Digital Whiteboard Resources

We offer some of our print-based materials below in digital formats that can be used with online tools like Jamboard, Google Slides, Padlet, and others. These instructions can help you get started:

Using Learn.Genetics Resources in Jamboard

CELLS IN CONTEXT - Suggested Lesson Sequence

This middle school unit’s resources are designed to be used in any order, with or without outside lessons. However, we hope you will consider the suggested sequence below. It pulls together the unit’s resources in a way that illuminates the connection between structure and function and examine how cells work together in systems.

The unit’s materials offer an in-depth exploration of specialized cell types. Student pairs can follow one cell type through several activities, or they can learn about multiple cell types. Three cell types (airway, intestine, and leaf) appear in all the key modeling activities: Mystery Cell Model, Teaming with Cells, Hijacked Cells!, Hijacked Teams!, and Pathogen Attacks. Mystery Cell Model features two additional cell types: neuron and plant root cell.

Features:

  • Three-dimensional
  • US Middle School level (ages 12-14)
  • Flexible: use in sequence as a complete unit or integrate with other curriculum materials
  • Consistent visual language: structures are depicted similarly thoughout
  • Uses models to visualize cell structure and function

Class TimeActivityDescription
20 minIs it Alive?Card sort to prompt lively discussion of what it means to be alive.
45 minMystery Cell ModelCell model exploration that allows students to examine structures and functions common to all cells and use the specialized structures to choose which of 5 cell types they have. *Can be used with Inside a Cell, an online interactive.
20 minCoffee to CarbonCard sort to infer size and scale of molecules, organelles, and cells along with Cell Size and Scale, an online interactive to check their work.
20 - 30 minReal Cell GalleryOptional online illustrations of cells that your textbook has never dreamed of!
5 - 10 minLevels of OrganizationTeacher demo of the Virtual Microscope to show how cells, tissues, organs, and systems are related.
45 - 60 minTeaming with CellsExploration activity that shows how specialized cell types (and their related tissues and organs) contribute to the function of the organism. *
45 minHijacked Cells!Modeling activity that uses the Mystery Cell models and cutouts to show how pathogens attack cells. *
40 minHijacked Teams!Exploration activity building on Teaming with Cells where students identify pathogen effects at all levels and determine where symptoms of disease come from. *
30 minPathogen Attacks!Fun board game where teams of cell specialists apply their new knowledge of pathogens and symptoms!

*Includes online student materials and fillable pdf student organizer.

Is it Alive?

How do you know if something is living or not? Students look at objects on illustrated cards (24 total) and determine whether they are living or non-living. Several tricky examples are included (such as seeds and wood) to encourage discussion about what exactly it is that makes something alive. Regardless of the criteria your students use, you’ll want to underscore that all living things are made of cells.

Have students sort cards independently, then lead a class discussion.

  • There are criteria that some use to determine if something is living or not, but some examples are tricky.
  • Living things are made of cells.
  • Cells are the smallest unit that can be said to be alive.

20 minutes

Copies

Printable Object Cards with Teacher Guide (pdf)
Make one set per pair or small group (card sets can be re-used)

Cards for digital whiteboards (ZIP file)

Mystery Cell Model

How do cells carry out the basic functions of life? Students label the structure & function of organelles on a cell model—with a slight twist. There are 5 models to distribute, each depicting a specialized cell with some parts that are unique to its function. While labeling the functions of their cell organelles, students compare their cells to find organelles that are: (1) common to all cells, and (2) unique to each cell type. Finally, they deduce their cell’s identity.

Have students work in pairs or small groups. See Teacher Guide for details.

Use the Inside a Cell interactive tool before, during, or after the Mystery Cell Models:

  • Before — to introduce organelles and their function.
  • During — as a whole-group or individual reference to help students identify and label common organelles.
  • After — as a check to make sure students labeled their organelles correctly.

  • Within cells, special structures carry out particular functions.
  • All cells have many of the same basic structures, yet they also have differences that allow the cells to perform specialized roles.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Class time: 45 minutes

Copies
One of the following:

  • Computers with internet and headphones
  • Generic cell models and copies of the Most Cells Have These Parts sheet

Coffee to Carbon

How big are cells? Put the relationship between cells, organelles and molecules in to perspective. Using copy-and-cut cards, students place biological structures in order by their relative size from largest to smallest.

Distribute shuffled sets of object cards to student groups and instruct them to arrange the objects pictured in order from largest to smallest. Ask students to compare the order of their cards with another group and discuss any discrepancies. Use Cell Size and Scale to check answers.

  • Understand the relative size of microscopic biological structures

Prep time: 10 minutes

Class time: 20 minutes

Copies

Printable Object Cards with Teacher Guide (pdf)
Make one set per pair or small group (card sets can be re-used)

Object cards for digital whiteboards (ZIP file) — Includes cards for basic, intermediate and advanced sets

Cell Size and Scale (interactive)

(Optional) Real Cell Gallery

Cells your textbook never dreamed of

In biology, there is always an exception to the rule. Real and illustrated examples of some interesting prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells underscore the specialized functions of cells as well the things all cells have in common.

  • All cells have many of the same basic structures, yet they also have differences that allow the cells to perform specialized roles.

20 - 30 minutes

Computers with internet access

Introduce Levels of Organization

Using this online interactive as a demo, zoom in and orient students to cells and their context in higher levels of organization.

Navigate to the Virtual Microscope. Project and orient students to the levels of organization that they will be using throughout the unit: organism, organ system, organ, tissue, and cell.

  • Living things are made of many different numbers and types of cells.

5 - 10 minutes

Teaming with Cells

How do groups of cells work together to carry out functions in organisms? Students examine labeled illustrations and construct explanations for how a particular cell type—and the tissue and organ that it is part of—works with others to help an organism function.

Builds on Mystery Cell Model — Model a cell, then learn how it works with other cell types in a tissue and beyond!

Have students use either tissue cards print-outs or the virtual microscope to explore four levels of organization (cell, tissue, organ, organ system).

If students have trouble finding the words for their organizers, you could either point them to the yellow boxes on the cards or provide a word bank.

  • Cells form tissues and tissues form organs specialized for particular body functions.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Class time: 45 - 60 minutes

Copies

Student Organizer (fillable pdf)

Printable Tissue Cards (pdf)
Make one set per pair or small group (card sets can be re-used)

Materials for digital whiteboards (ZIP file)

Online alternative to tissue cards: Virtual Microscope (interactive)

Hijacked!

The next three activities explore what happens when the body’s functions are disrupted by pathogens. All three activities illustrate infection using the following pathogen/cell type pairs:

  • Influenza virus & Airway cell
  • E. coli bacteria & Intestine cell
  • Tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) & Leaf cell

You may choose to work with any number of the infections. If you plan to work with more than one, we have found that it is a little quicker to have students follow the same pathogen/cell type pair all the way through.

Note: Teams will come into play in the third activity, Pathogen Attacks! Each team must be composed of “experts” for each pathogen/cell type pair, and you will need an even number of teams to play. Therefore, establishing groupings and infection assignments early is important.

Hijacked Cells!

Hijacked Cells! builds on Mystery Cell Models. Students model the process a specific pathogen uses to infect a cell. They identify which organelles the pathogen uses and how it disrupts the cell’s function.

  • Have students work in pairs or small groups.
  • Distribute matching sets of Mystery Cell Models (linked above), Pathogen Cut-Outs, and Modeling Instructions.
  • Have students follow the instructions, taping the cut-outs onto the cell models only where the instructions say to (some parts should not be taped down).
  • Have students work through the Organizer, using the instructions there.
  • Pathogens interrupt the normal function of particular cells.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Class time: 45 minutes

Copies, tape, scissors (if students need to prepare their own cut-outs)

  • How are the 3 essential functions of a cell (instructions, energy, container) affected in the case of each of the pathogens?
  • In the case of E. coli, one of the essential functions is not affected. Which one, and what does the pathogen do instead to spread the infection?
  • In the case of a virus, one of the essential functions is not affected. Which one and why?
  • Are viruses and bacteria living? Why or why not?
  • What are the top reasons the pathogen you modeled needs a host cell?

Use the optional Structure & Harm cards to help students find the right words. Provide one or both sets of cards for students to tape onto their organizers.

If you’re using the fillable pdf, you could use the information from the cards to make a word bank.

After pairs model their cell infection, act out a class-wide infection of either Influenza or TSWV. One student/group starts the infection. Their cell becomes the factory. After going through the virus infection cycle, they give their mature virus particles to another group. Now 2 groups are making virus and infecting others. Continue until all groups are infected.

Printable Pathogen Cut-Outs (pdf)
Make one set per pair or small group (card sets can be re-used)

Printable Modeling Instructions (pdf)
Make one set per pair or small group (card sets can be re-used)

Cut-outs and modeling instructions for digital whiteboards:
Influenza (ZIP file)
E. coli (ZIP file)
TSWV (ZIP file)

Student Organizer (fillable pdf) — Make one per student

Structure & Harm Cards (pdf) — optional

Hijacked Teams!

Students follow their infections to the next level. Building on what they learned in Teaming with Cells, students see how pathogens disrupt tissues, organs, and systems. They piece it together to understand how exactly pathogens make you sick.

Have students work in pairs or small groups. If you will follow up with the Pathogen Attacks! game be sure to assign pathogen/cell pairs so they are distributed among the class. You’ll need “experts” for each infection.

Paper Version: Give each pair or small group a set of Hijacked Teams! cards and matching symptom tags (one full page of tags per table of 6). Have students tape each symptom tag onto a section of text (not an image) that describes how a disrupted function is causing that symptom.

Online Version: Have students navigate to the Virtual Microscope and find the information for their pathogen.

Have students fill in the Hijacked Teams! Organizer with information about their pathogen infection. They’ll use this later, when they play Pathogen Attacks!

  • Pathogens interrupt the normal function of particular cells.
  • When cell function is disrupted, tissue function is disrupted.
  • The symptoms of a disease or illness are a direct result of disrupted cell, tissue, and organ function.

40 minutes

Paper version: copies, scissors & tape
Online version: individual student computers
Student organizers from earlier activities may be useful

  • Often it is the immune system that kills an infected cell. Why would it be bad for a pathogen to kill the cell? Why would an organism need to kill its own cells?
  • What strategy or strategies does the pathogen use to spread to other individuals?

Have students draw arrows to show cause-and-effect relationships starting at the cell level, through tissues and organs, to symptoms.

Hijacked Teams! Cards (pdf)

Includes card sets for 3 infections. Make one set per pair or small group (can be re-used)

Symptom Tags (pdf)
Page includes tags for all 3 infections

Cut-outs and modeling instructions for digital whiteboards:
Influenza (ZIP file)
E. coli (ZIP file)
TSWV (ZIP file)

Student Organizer (pdf)
Make one per student

Student Organizer (fillable pdf)
Make one per student

Virtual Microscope (interactive)

Pathogen Attacks!

This game is a fun way to reinforce the concepts from the Hijacked! activities. Student specialists form teams, then they battle it out to see who can best connect the symptoms of an infection to the underlying causes in cells, tissues, and organs.

Divide students into an even number of teams. Each team should have at least 3 players, with at least one expert for each pathogen example.

Distribute one set of game materials for every two teams.

Team members will need their filled-in Hijacked Teams! Organizers. The game requires information from all three pathogens, so working together is essential!

As students play, you will need to wander and award stealing points for teams who can show that their evidence proves another team’s match incorrect.

  • Pathogens interrupt the normal function of particular cells.
  • When cell function is disrupted, tissue function is disrupted.
  • The symptoms of a disease or illness are a direct result of disrupted cell and tissue function.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Class time: 30 minutes

Copies
One-minute timers (one per game)
Filled-in Hijacked Teams! organizers

CELLS COMMUNICATE

Designed for high school students, the materials in this section build on the middle-school-level materials above. The lessons here explore cell communication from a molecular perspective.

Build-A-Membrane - Advanced

Cut, fold, and tape biomolecules to create a three-dimensional cell membrane with embedded proteins.

Have students (individually or in pairs) build membrane segments, then put them all together to form a large membrane.

  • Membranes have proteins embedded in them.
  • Membrane-embedded proteins allow cellular signals and other molecules to pass through the membrane.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Class time: 30 minutes

Copies, scissors, tape

  1. A cell is enclosed and defined by an outer membrane.
  2. Membranes have multiple types of proteins in and around them. These types include:
    • Integral proteins, which extend through one of both layers of the phospholipid bilayer
    • Proteins attached to lipid molecules that anchor them to the membrane
    • Receptor proteins, which transmit signals across a membrane
    • Transporter and channel proteins, which form pores through the membrane that can open and close to let specific molecules through
  3. Membranes also organize the interior of a cell. They wrap around compartments / organelles
  4. Phospholipids spontaneously arrange themselves into membranes

Student Instructions and Cut-Outs (pdf)
Make one per student or pair

The Fight or Flight Response - Advanced

Watch how cell communication carried out by molecular signals bring about physiological change during the fight or flight response.

Project to the class or have students explore individually in pairs.

  • Cell communication is a multi-step process.
  • Cells communicate via signaling pathways made of interacting components.
  • Components of cell signaling pathways sometimes change shape as a result of their interaction (conformational change)

15 - 30 minutes

Projector and speakers or individual student computers

The Fight or Flight Response (video)

(optional) Play-By-Play (pdf) - A scene-by-scene guide to the molecular interactions taking place in the video.

Related Resource: How Cells Communicated During Fight or Flight (web page) - An in-depth look at one axis of cell communication during the fight or flight response.

Pathways with Friends - Advanced

Directed by instructional cards, students kinesthetically model cell communication by acting as components in a cell signaling pathway.

  1. Create a space in which students can move freely.
  2. Form groups of six students each. (You may have multiple groups in one class, or choose one group to demonstrate). Explain the rules of the activity:
    • Each person will be givent a card.
    • Do not let others what know what your card says.
    • When prompted, follow the instructions on the card to create a cell signaling pathway.
  3. Distribute one set of Cell Communication Cards to each group, and ask the students to choose a card from their set.
  4. Once every student has a card, prompt the groups to begin by following instruction #1 on their card.
  5. Next, instruct your students to follow instruction #2 on their card.
  6. When each group is finished, project to the class the Cell Signaling Steps diagram, summarizing the steps the students just demonstrated. Discuss the activity and how it models signaling pathways in the cell.
  • Cell communication is a multi-step process.
  • Cells communicate via signaling pathways made of interacting components.
  • Components of cell signaling pathways sometimes change shape as a result of their interaction (conformational change)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Class time: 30 minutes

Copies, projector

  • What happened?
  • How did you recognize where to go?
  • How does this model cell communication?
  • What effect did joining the pathway have on you? (Looking for something to indicate conformational change.)
  • What problems did you encounter?
  • What would have happened if someone did not do their job (follow instructions) or were not there?

Instructional Cards (pdf) - includes Cell Signaling Steps diagram

Dropping Signals - Advanced

Students drag and drop to see how various signals affect a selection of cell types.

Have students work individually or in pairs to explore the interactive. Students can record information on an optional student organizer.

  • There are different types of cells, and different types of signals.
  • Cells respond differently to signals depending on cell and signal type.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Class time: 30 minutes

Student computers with internet access
(optional) copies

About These Resources

Credits

This work was supported by Science Education Partnership Awards (Nos. R25RR023288 and 1R25GM021903) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

The contents provided here are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.