View Learn.Genetics Materials

Amazing Cells


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 organ systems to cells.

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.

Image Files

We offer most of the graphics from the print-based materials below as image files. You can download activity-specific bundles of images as ZIP files and use them with your favorite tools. Plug them into digital whiteboards (like Jamboard), slides, documents—anywhere you can drop a jpeg file!

Cells in Context Image Files

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!, and Hijacked Teams! Mystery Cell Model features two additional cell types: neuron and plant root cell.


  • 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 throughout
  • 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.

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


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

Is It Alive? (online version)

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.

Note: The airway, intestine, and leaf cells appear in other modeling activities: Mystery Cell Model, Teaming with Cells, Hijacked Cells!, and Hijacked Teams!You may choose to work with any number of cell types, as appropriate for you students. You may wish to have each student follow the same cell type throughout, as we have found this to be a little quicker.

Have students work individually or in pairs. 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

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


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

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: 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 printed illustrations 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


Student Organizer (fillable pdf)

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

Online alternative for viewing illustrations: Virtual Microscope (interactive)

Hijacked Cells!

This and the next activity explore what happens when an organism’s cells are disrupted by pathogens, 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 cell type all the way through.

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 individually, in pairs, or in 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.

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.

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 individually, in pairs, or in small groups.

  1. Assign each student, pair or group one or more pathogen/cell type pairs to work with.
    • Influenza virus & Airway cell
    • E. coli bacteria & Intestine cell
    • Tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) & Leaf cell
  2. Distribute sets of infection cards and organizers. Have students follow the instructions to complete the organizer.
    It may be useful for students to refer to the healthy structures and functions shown in the Teaming with Cells illustrations or Virtual Microscope

Note: Not all symptoms can be traced back to the cell level, but at least one can for each pathogen/cell type pair (see answer key); students will need to grapple with the information in the infection cards to identify which one it is.

  • 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

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 go back through the Hijacked Teams! cards and look for instances where multiple symptoms can be traced back to one effect at the cellular or tissue level.

Play Pathogen Attacks, a board game where teams of cell specialists apply their new knowledge of pathogens and symptoms.

Hijacked Teams! Cards (pdf)

Includes card sets for 3 infections. (can be re-used)

Student Organizer (fillable pdf)


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 given 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


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.